Thorndike's Reinforcement Theory: Using Consequences to Motivate Employees

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  • 0:04 Thorndike's…
  • 3:19 Positive Reinforcement
  • 4:52 Negative Reinforcement…
  • 6:18 Punishment Through…
  • 7:48 Extinction Is…
  • 8:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sherri Hartzell

Sherri has taught college business and communication courses. She also holds three degrees including communications, business, educational leadership/technology.

In the workplace, there are levels of acceptable behavior. As a manager, it is important to use appropriate techniques that reinforce acceptable behavior and deter inappropriate behavior. This lesson describes how reinforcement theory is used to influence employee behavior through consequences.

Thorndike's Reinforcement Theory

It is Ryan's first day at his new job at, and he's waiting for his manager to take him on a tour of the facility. Ryan's manager, Jessica, greets him and explains that he may see some unusual things on the tour but that she will explain everything to him along the way. Jessica begins the tour by showing Ryan a picture of the man Edward Thorndike, who deeply inspired the founder of She explains that Thorndike was a psychologist who, in 1911, developed the law of effect, which states that behavioral responses to stimuli that are followed by a satisfactory response will be strengthened, but responses that are followed by discomfort will be weakened. Essentially, behaviors that are rewarded are often repeated, and those behaviors that are not rewarded are less likely to occur in the future. This law of effect was later translated into a theory of employee motivation known as reinforcement theory, which Jessica clarifies as a theory that looks at the relationship between behavior and its consequences.

Edward Thorndike was a psychologist who developed the law of effect.
law of effect

The defining factor of reinforcement theory is, of course, reinforcement, which can be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement uses favorable consequences that reinforce the desired behavior as the correct behavior. For example, when a sales representative meets a sales quota (a desired behavior), she is rewarded with a pay bonus (positive reinforcement), making it more likely for the sales representative to want to repeat that same behavior that resulted in the positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement, also referred to as avoidance, rewards a behavior by removing negative or undesirable consequences, which strengthens the probability of the behavior being repeated. For example, if the sales representative does particularly well in one region (behavior), she is rewarded by not being asked to work in more challenging regions where sales have been difficult to achieve (negative reinforcement). The sales representative will continue to work hard in the region she is currently assigned so that she is not forced to work in the less favorable one.

It is important to note that reinforcement has nothing to do with 'good' or 'bad' behavior. In fact, many people make the mistake of confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. A person is punished in an attempt to decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated, whereas negative reinforcement is used to increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Both positive and negative reinforcement have the ability to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior being repeated. Because positive and negative reinforcement do not always work, there are two other reinforcement strategies that can be used, which include punishment and extinction. To better help you understand how all four of these reinforcement strategies are used to influence behavior through consequences, let's continue along with Ryan and Jessica on their tour.

Positive Reinforcement

After explaining reinforcement theory, Jessica begins introducing Ryan to some of his coworkers and showing him where his new desk will be located. Jessica then leads Ryan down a long hallway and points to a door with the words 'Positive Reinforcement' written on it. Jessica asks Ryan to open the door, which made Ryan a bit nervous. However, what was on the other side of the door quickly brought a smile to Ryan's face. On the other side of the door lay the mother of all break rooms. There were some employees getting a massage, plush pillow-top beds to take a nap on, a full service bar, a chef who would cook any dish you wanted. There was coffee that brewed every five minutes to ensure maximum freshness, and there was even a unicorn that you could ride! Jessica explained to Ryan that this was the room of positive reinforcement, and anytime he does something that she believes is desirable, he can enter the room of positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is used to reward desired behavior with the intent of increasing the likelihood that the pleasing behavior will be repeated. Examples of positive reinforcement include pay raises, bonuses, promotions, awards, public recognition, and in this case, a lavish employee break room. In the workplace, managers can use positive reinforcement to increase productivity and improve employee and department morale.

Negative Reinforcement and Avoidance

Jessica closed the door to the room of positive reinforcement and then points Ryan to another door marked 'Negative Reinforcement and Avoidance'. Ryan opens this door and lets out a scream. Unlike the room of positive reinforcement, this room was unpleasant, smelled of fish, was full of trash, had only a vending machine, the coffee looked as if it were five days old, there were no tables or chairs, and in place of the unicorn was a broken-down kiddy ride in the shape of a horse. Jessica explained to Ryan that this was the room of negative reinforcement and avoidance, and anytime that he does something that she believes is less than desirable, he will be sent to the room of negative reinforcement and avoidance. She explains that this is not a punishment, but rather a reminder to him to always strive to exert desirable behaviors, or he will not be allowed into the room of positive reinforcement. When someone cannot enter the room of positive reinforcement but needs to use the break room, they will have to settle for the room of negative reinforcement and avoidance.

Negative reinforcement, or avoidance, is used by managers to show an employee what the consequences of unacceptable behavior will be. The goal is to get the employee to avoid the unacceptable behavior. If an employee does not engage in the unacceptable behavior, then he or she will not experience the consequence.

Punishment Through Negative Consequence

As Jessica and Ryan continue their tour, a group of employees grab Ryan and duct tape him to the wall. It appears the employees at like to haze new employees as a means of welcoming them to the company. This is something that Jessica has advised her employees not to do. Jessica immediately tells the employees to stop their behavior. She then turns and informs them that they will all be docked pay for the day because of their actions. As Jessica begins to remove Ryan from the wall, she tells him that this should serve as a lesson to him that inappropriate behavior can result in punishment at Jessica suspects that those employees will refrain from engaging in this type of hazing activities going forward because of the punishment.

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