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Negative Reinforcement in the Workplace: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Susan Fenner

Susan has an MBA in Management from the University of North Alabama. She teaches online and campus-based Business courses.

Negative reinforcement in the workplace is frequently misunderstood, even by many business professionals. Let's take a closer look at a popular misconception and then explore the true meaning of negative reinforcement.

Definition

Many people think that the term, 'negative reinforcement' means acting in a way that encourages and rewards bad behavior. For example: all of the employees take turns washing the office coffee pot and tidying up the small kitchen at the end of the day. Joe hates the task. He's very careless and lazy about it, and he manages to leave the kitchen a bigger mess than he found it. As a result, the boss said Joe doesn't have to take a turn any more. Joe is rewarded for his negative behavior, which only encourages him to continue to be a jerk.

If that fits your understanding of negative reinforcement, you're not alone. But that's not really what negative reinforcement means!

Negative reinforcement is when something unwanted (negative) that is already present is removed because of a person's action, and it results in something favorable for that person. Thus, the person is encouraged to keep repeating the action to get the favorable result.

We use negative reinforcement to modify our own behavior all the time. For example, when we scratch an itch to take away an itching sensation or take a shower to remove body odor, we are taking away something undesirable, and thus we are motivated to keep repeating the action.

Employers can use negative reinforcement in the workplace as a management tool to motivate employees and control their behavior by removing unfavorable conditions as long as the employees continue to perform as expected.

Examples

Dan is the manager of a small home appliance center with 20 employees. Once a month the sales staff is required to attend a meeting on Saturday mornings where Dan serves day-old donuts and lectures them on up-selling and closing a deal. Naturally, the employees dread the meetings. Dan sees their attitude toward the meetings as an opportunity to use negative reinforcement to increase sales. Dan tells the workers that if sales revenue increases by at least 5% next month, the employees can skip the monthly meeting.

The sales staff is excited about the chance to skip the meeting, and they are motivated to step up their efforts to make a sale. This is negative reinforcement.

Let's look at another example.

The CEO is a stickler for upholding safety standards. He has prepared a PowerPoint presentation describing the shop's safety protocols in minute detail, and the workers are required to log in to the company's private website to review the presentation every week.

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