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Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?

Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?


It has been said that rarely am I short of words, and yet this article I’ve re-written 5 times, why?

It’s not as if I have a lack of thoughts on this subject. It’s not as if I don’t spend my days enabling people to communicate powerfully and get what they want in life. So why the rewrites?

I’ve found myself thinking about the diversity of people I’ve coached and how different we all can be. Usually when I write for Lifehack, I’m able to see instant commonality in the subject that means I could share some ideas that would resonate wherever you are in life, whoever you are regardless of what you were looking to achieve or what adversity you may face.

However with this, it’s a “how long’s a piece of string?” answer, i.e. I could probably write a whole book’s worth of 55,000 words and still have ideas I’d not had the chance to cover!

Let’s look at some key points:

  • You will have times in your life where you need to get someone to do something.
  • You will have times when someone needs you to do something.

Let’s look at how positive and negative reinforcement would work. In both of these situations, you can face some big obstacles:

  • Someone may resist your desire for them to change.
  • Someone may challenge your authority or leadership.
  • Someone maybe at risk of getting hurt.

You could find yourself feeling frustrated, like a poor leader, like a poor team player, like a lousy communicator, like you are rubbish at your job, or like you can’t do it.

The important thing to remember is that in life, we all have to be influenced and influence those around us and some ways will help us get the result we want and others won’t. But that may differ on where you are, who you are talking to and what you all want to see happen!

So how do we know when positive reinforcement is effective and can there ever be a time when negative reinforcement is good?

Worryingly, if you get positive and negative reinforcement wrong you can risk your career, your business, your relationships, your reputation and your brand.

Positive and negative reinforcement each have their merits, it’s knowing when to employ which. Some ways will wind up those around you and others, will inspire. And interestingly, despite a ton of evidence to the contrary, we still rely on the wrongs ones in society, business and even in parenting.

The 4 examples below showcase the use of positive and negative reinforcement and whether they personally apply to you right now or not, they will resonate and be very useful to you personally in every area of your life.

For each we will look at:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. What have you tried?
  3. Now what?
  4. The results!

The Boss

Okay you may not be a boss, however, everyone will have times in their life where they need to get people organized, and working together to get the best result. Often, leaders say things like this to me:

  • “I’ve told them until I’m blue in the face not to do that!”
  • “They constantly refuse to use the new system.”
  • “They just don’t listen.”
  • “They don’t respect me.”

What did the boss try?

Often, I hear “We’ve tried everything!” No matter who is reading this, trust me you’ve not tried everything. (That’s the first thing to accept.) When you accept that, you then need to look at what you have tried to move forward.

The boss has tried:

  • Given the person training.
  • Spent time with them showing them how to do it.
  • Told them it wasn’t good enough.
  • Told them we aren’t doing that any more.

Now what?

The above situations create tension between the two as you constantly battle to maintain your position on the situation. If you are looking to get someone to do something and they constantly resist, you need to stop and ask yourself some questions:

  1. What have we tried? This helps you to understand what they are good at and utilise that in the conversation.
  2. From their viewpoint, what could prevent them from doing what I’ve asked? What could they fear and how will we allay those fears?
  3. What do they want? Seeing their viewpoint enables you to use their terminology and language so they feel listened to.
  4. What do they believe? Does their beliefs prevent them from seeing the benefits? Beliefs can be changed but not by force – coaching is very powerful for this.
  5. How do these answers differ from my beliefs and views? Bridging the gap helps you to see both view points and communicate more powerfully.

In my experience, rarely does a boss or leader need to say the word “No”. If someone is not doing what you want them to, the quickest way to see results is to ask questions and listen. And often when you really listen, you discover a big gap between what you think you are saying and what the other person is hearing.

The reasons why someone is not doing what you want is:

  • They don’t know how to do what you’ve asked them to do.
  • They are scared to get it wrong.
  • They fear what people will think of them.
  • They don’t have the confidence to come and tell you they need help.
  • They are scared that someone will tell them off.
  • They don’t understand where the boundaries are.

People tell me “But I said that to them!” If you are too close to the situation, then how likely are they to take notice from you? Here’s what you can do:

  • Get out of your usual environments – neutral environments make difficult conversations easier. They can take you both off your guard which can be good.
  • Start by making that person feel safe to say anything. Ground rules like “This is a confidential conversation” and “I won’t make any judgement on what you say, I just want to understand.”
  • Be prepared to say “I’m sorry” or “I didn’t realize” When you do this positive and negative reinforcement can be used.

How do you do that?

Learning how to coach people instead of tell people is key. Enabling the other person to see the benefits of what you want for them (and not you) is quicker than trying to dictate action.

  • Lay out expected outcomes.
  • Create boundaries.
  • Explain what support and help you will provide.

Notice how none of this is about saying “Look you’ve just got to stop doing this!”. It’s all about “Okay, I now understand that you were doing this because of this and that. If I help you with this and if I check in with you once a week, you will be able to work in the way I need and we can get the result we both want. Have I missed anything?”

What you expect, what was agreed, what we don’t want to see happen any more and how to keep on track. Read on for additional ideas to really power this up.

The Results!

This style of reinforcement is about utilising both negative and positive reinforcement. It enables someone to feel safe to explain why they’ve not been taken action and helps them to overcome the limitations they feel they experience safe in the knowledge they will get the support to change with the positive results explained in a way that matters to them.

There was a member of a team of 14 who constantly did the opposite of everyone else. The boss was frustrated, the team was frustrated, their customers were frustrated. When I spoke to their boss, working with me was the final straw before asking them to leave and the boss wasn’t’ convinced coaching could help.

So as not to single them out, we had a team coaching day. And at no time did I single this person out. I used the ideas above. And it was a real revelation for the team. Who found themselves saying things like;

  • I didn’t know you felt like that.
  • I didn’t know you had to do that.

And that led to respect and understanding from everyone. The frustrated and the frustrator.

Ultimately honesty and transparency help – people can sniff out fake reasoning and insincerity a mile off! And this process helped everyone feel safe to be honest and transparent.

The Young Child (Different to Teenagers – See Below)

If you’ve ever found yourself on the wrong end of a relentless tantrum of a small child, you will know it can feel impossible to get through to them. While many elements of The Boss scenario could work, there’s time where I feel you need a little negative reinforcement too.

What’s the problem?

My children are now 15 and 18. I can honestly say that while we have had some challenging behaviors, our parenting means I’ve two children I’m very proud of – great communicators, great work ethic, kind, funny, considerate. The point is for my children, this stuff works. And to be honest, when I’m with other people’s children, they often say “How did you get them to do that!”

Young children are amazing. It’s like they’ve just woken up in a new body and have been told to go touch, feel, experience everything – every emotion, every taste, smell, experience, texture, the lot! They are by nature curious and keen to know more. Sapping up everything, and a lot of that we don’t want them sapping up!

When they’ve got out of bed for the 60th time and are at risk of death from SS style clambering over stairs gates and ninja styling it down the stairs and through doors (yes my 1.5 year old used to do this – scaring me half to death like some horror movie when the door miraculously opened and you couldn’t see anyone there, because she was so little! Then that’s dangerous.)

When they go to put a pencil in an electric socket, or let go of your hand as you cross the road, it’s imperative they get the learning and knowledge they need fast. I once was talking to a parent that said I was wrong to say no to my children. I asked “At what age would you like me to introduce them to that word?” to which they had no answer.

While I agree that there are usually a lot more words than just no for children, No is a word that kept you and I safe when we were small.

What have you tried?

While young children are incredibly intelligent, explaining the merits of your preferred course of action is not going to keep them safe. Tying them to your waist isn’t working. Punishing them and telling them there’s no more park time until you walk next to me doesn’t’ work either. So how do you say no and keep them safe?

Now what?

While The Boss doesn’t need to say no, and there’re elements of their approach that work for children (and in society). “I want you to not do this because of X” can only go so far. No, don’t do that doesn’t work as well as I don’t want you to do that because….

The difference is the first makes the individual feel like they are being told what to do whereas the second explains how what you are doing is not acceptable – either socially, morally, legally or even keeping you safe.

Sometimes the negative reinforcement is essential. For instance, my son (who adored Bob the builder when he was little) was playing with his plastic tool kit and discovered an electric socket…..I didn’t stop to explain the merits of how that could be dangerous sticking your bob the builder plastic screw driver in the electric socket. I said calmly “No, that’s dangerous!”

Here’s the important point: It’s not just about your words. With young children, it’s important that your body language clearly says the same. My face looked scared and I grabbed him in a hug as if a bear was after him. This made him look around and think “Wow what is wrong?” He never did it again!

This doesn’t just work for children, for us all being told what we can’t do is not enough. We need to feel it. And that very much is about utilizing negative reinforcement. I worked in the car industry for 10 years and it’s one of the fundamental reasons why I have never ever speeded. Did I know before I worked in the car industry it was dangerous to speed? Of course, but when you see the mangled wreckage of a car and found yourself asking, “how the did they get out of there?” you really never go over the speed limit ever again.

Negative reinforcement. Not because it’s illegal and the police won’t like you but, because I don’t want to end up trapped in a car waiting for the emergency services to come and cut me out of the metal trap – and that’s if I’m lucky!

The results!

I did feel like the luckiest parent on the planet to have 2 children sleeping through the night, but that didn’t tell the full story. I can remember spending a few weeks calmly picking my daughter up with no eye contact, no overly big hug, no conversation just saying “Sorry darling but now’s bedtime back we go.” And yes being the strong willed (that’s good now but a pain in the **** at 2 years of age) girl that she is, there were sometimes a good hour of that. Until she got the message that Mum really isn’t going to play, turn into a dinosaur, sing or read me a story, well this is dull, I might as well go to sleep.

The thing with positive and negative reinforcement is you need to have faith it will work, and you are doing the right thing.

And of course, when I went in to get her from her cot the next morning, I had a big grin on my face that said “Wow what a grown up girl you are staying in your bed all night!” Positive reinforcement to get the day started.

The Teenager

What’s the problem?

If I’m honest, I don’t have problems with my teenagers – or their friends – they are all very awesome. However, I think that is in no small part to my style of communication. Having respect for them is key and appreciating how much change is happening in their lives really helps – as someone who helps large teams of people deal with change, I know how hard it can be.

However, when I wrote the article How to Enjoy Parenting Teens and Help Your Kids Thrive, I was inundated with “thank you”s and stories of hellish behavior from other parent’s teenagers. Tales of staying out all night and not phoning home, abusive behavior towards parents and teens – I really felt for all involved.

What have you tried?

The problem with teens is they know exactly how to wind you up like a little clock work toy. And if you’ve had a tough day, the last thing you want is to have to deal with someone who can’t even communicate with words; let alone put their dishes in the dishwasher.

Losing it is never the option but, it can easily happen. Shouting, bribery and doing it yourself because it’s just easier – don’t work in the long run.

Now what?

If you consider everything we’ve covered, you can see that you need to communicate using positive and negative reinforcement. In life, there are consequences to all actions; and teens have a ton of stuff to learn to become effective successful happy adults.

Before you embark on any course of action, consider how the other person perceives the world. What are they going through?

You may have loved being a teen but that doesn’t ensure your children will. Likewise in life, there are things you love and others will loathe – seeing the world through other people’s eyes really helps you to understand the best way to communicate.

The only big difference for teenagers is to use emotion with caution. I personally let my children see all emotions – I’ve not hidden my tears when I’ve lost a loved one – it’s a perfectly normal thing to do. However, if a teenager in a foul mood can spot a weakness, they may just take advantage of it – who do you know in life that does that?

Result!

My kids love to tell everyone I’m a scary mum, a really scary mum. I’m not, I just have high standards and I’m not prepared to drop them. A great example is Emma, my daughters’ friend (she will be so happy to see her name in print in this article!) Emma thinks I’m so great that she wants to be me when she grows up – I’m not sure any planet is ready for 2 Mandie Holgates!

The point is, that I remember one of the first times I met her, I had to ask her not to do something – it wasn’t anything big, just the kind of house rules that vary from house to house. Emma had looked a bit surprised (as do all my children’s friends when I ask them to either help clear the dishes or not to do something). However, they all like to come back. So, is being negative bad? Or good?

We shy away from telling people what we expect and then wonder why we are getting as stressed as the other party because no one knows where they stand.

I’m happy for my children to take over the TV room and eat far too much sweet stuff and binge on a box set. Just don’t put cups on the carpet, we have places for drinks. It’s having the confidence to say this is our rules.

People think negative reinforcement is a bad thing. However, how can someone change if they don’t know what they are doing wrong? And that’s the issue, so many of us are fearful of saying “Stop doing that!” If you lack confidence, find your voice because people aren’t mind readers.

The Dog

What’s the problem?

I’ve had two dogs both from a young age, but older enough to have gained some shocking habits. Like the Springer Spaniel that loved to run off with a full nappy/diaper. Gross! The issue is that we often attempt to communicate in the same way with everyone. Looking at how to get the best results out of our relationships with our furry pets, is surprisingly useful for all relationships.

What have you tried?

We love our pets, we spoil them, treat them, cuddle them and want the best for them. And yet, when it comes to discipline the amount of times, I’ve heard people shouting at a dog and wondering why it’s wandered off and ignoring them. Infuriating!

Now what?

If you look at your relationships, you are likely to find some that never respond to negative reinforcement. They just shut down and stop listening. Dogs aren’t deliberately trying to annoy you (just like a lot of people!)

If you’ve ever learned anything about Pavlov’s dogs, you will know that dogs are quick to catch on as long as we are being clear on what we want. And like so many areas of life, we can be wishy washy with our requests and requirements, making it nigh on impossible for someone to behave the way we want them to. (I bet you’ve been on the receiving end of this too!)

There’s time when, like kids, a firm no is perfect and there’s time it’s best to ignore them. If you want a well behaved dog, watch how quick they respond to stimuli that results in a treat or a cuddle.

Dogs don’t associate bad behavior in the past to knowing what you want in the future – so it’s no good shouting at them for ripping up a diaper or raiding the rubbish. We need to learn how to give them positive reinforcement. Distract them with what we want them to run off and play with. Praise for waiting nicely or for playing a game of hide and seek with them before you attempt to change the baby.

Praise them when they are awesome. (You can see how humans respond to this kind of positive reinforcement too, right?)

Call them for no reason but to tell them they are brilliant – while dogs may not understand the words, they understand the emotion and love the good stuff – just like humans – ask yourself do you scrimp on ensuring your positive emotions are perceived by others?

Our lack of planning and communication is not their fault, and this is the same for many humans.

I struggled to think of times in our professional life where you would do the next action, (so if you know, do let me know) but just like you ignore the toddler throwing an all mighty tantrum, some dog behavior is best ignored. See in results when this works.

The results!

My “Made by Jim Henson” Dog was a rescue, so when we got her, she was very nervous – she could jump out of skin at a leaf. As such, she’s built very strong bonds with us 4 and hates to be apart from us. It was easy enough to make her happy at home without us – a calming spray, treats, music and a cuddle on leaving and arriving.

However, in the car 2 years on, she can still whine when we have to put her in her cage. We moved the cage up high so she could see us at all times, adding the calming spray, and praised her every time the whining stopped – sometimes with treats. In this way, she rarely whines.

But hey, we all have relapses, right? So we have to remember to keep up our good behavior too. See how awesome this analogy is for your relationships in life?

Think about it, a happy dog, sticks by your side – so ask yourself with this kind of positive reinforcement – how awesome could it be for your relationships.

Final Thoughts

I hope these 4 examples have shared some top lifehacks with you. To conclude before you start considering whether positive or negative reinforcement is best for others, ask yourself what do you respond better to?

Personally, I respond far better to negative reinforcement – I can improve and be more successful and happier if I know what I’m doing wrong. And I know that sometimes, negative reinforcement works better with some clients who really don’t’ want to look at the issue – but it’s always done with respect and love.

Coaching people is also a great representation of when positive and negative reinforcement is best. We are looking to find ways to increase the positive action with positive reinforcement and ways to reduce the negative results with negative reinforcement – and usually my clients keep those changes for the rest of their lives.

And lastly a word of caution, beware of the continual likers – the ones that always only say nice things. Anyone constantly only showering you in positive reinforcement, you’ve got to ask yourself “Seriously, do I never get anything wrong?”

A perfect example of this is that, I host a confidential mastermind group for professionals. I love my confidential mastermind group. (You won’t find it – it’s that confidential) There, we don’t get the likers of everything — even for stuff they are never going to use, or believe just because it’s easier than being honest. Also, we have confidence to believe that our honesty will be accepted and respected, and not lead to negative results. That way, you can grow and ultimately, that is what positive and negative reinforcement should do for us all.

More About Motivation

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com



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