Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Reinforcement Theory Defined
  • 0:26 Key Concepts of…
  • 2:48 Schedules of Reinforcement
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

In this lesson, you will learn about reinforcement theory as it applies to the workplace and be provided some examples to illustrate the theory. You will also have an opportunity to reinforce your knowledge with a short quiz.

Reinforcement Theory Defined

Reinforcement theory proposes that you can change someone's behavior by using reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Rewards are used to reinforce the behavior you want and punishments are used to prevent the behavior you do not want. Extinction is a means to stop someone from performing a learned behavior. The technical term for these processes is called operant conditioning.

Key Concepts of Reinforcement Theory

The fundamental concepts of this theory are reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Reinforcement can be divided into positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when the consequence resulting in the behavior you are attempting to produce increases the probability that the desired behavior will continue. If a salesperson performs well, that salesperson may receive a bonus, which reinforces the desire to make sales because of the positive consequence of doing so.

Negative reinforcement occurs when a negative consequence is withheld if the behavior you desire is demonstrated, which will increase the probability that the behavior you are seeking will continue. For example, let's say that your company is opening a new office in Alaska. No one wants to move there. The company decides to let the top ten salespeople in the office pick if they go to Alaska or stay at the old office. You work very hard to be in the top ten so you can avoid the negative consequence of relocating to Alaska. You will continue to perform your best to avoid the negative consequence. Negative reinforcement, however, is not the same as punishment.

Punishment occurs when you impose a negative consequence to reduce an undesirable behavior. While negative reinforcement involves withholding a negative consequence to encourage a desirable behavior, punishment is imposing a negative consequence to discourage an unwanted behavior. For example, getting a write-up for being late to work is a punishment that is imposed on late workers to discourage workers from being late - an undesirable behavior.

The final trick up operant conditioning's sleeve is extinction, which is a means to stop someone's learned behavior. You attempt to extinguish a behavior by withholding the positive reinforcement that encouraged the behavior. For example, let's say that you manage a production facility that had a hard time keeping up with orders for the past few months. You used overtime pay as a positive reinforcement to bring workers in on weekends and to delay vacations. Now that you have the orders under control, you stop approving overtime. Workers no longer come in on the weekends to work. Their learned behavior has been extinguished.

Schedules of Reinforcement

One major component of these concepts is that they require an extra element to be effective. A schedule of reinforcement is the timing of the imposition of the consequences - when and how often you provide positive or negative reinforcement. There are two primary types of schedules of reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement occurs when a person is reinforced each time the desired behavior is demonstrated, while intermittent reinforcement means that a desired behavior is not always reinforced. Since it is pretty much impracticable, if not impossible, for an organization to always provide reinforcement, intermittent reinforcement is usually employed.

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