You Can’t Take It Back

In the APL seminar, we cover the realities of reinforcement, including schedules of reinforcement.  I make the point that predictable reinforcement is less effective because it is anticipated and is expected to occur as a matter of routine.

I once listened as a woman told me about her experience working in a company that had a small workforce–an owner and eight wage-earning employees.  She told me that one day the owner gathered the team members together and informed them that, thanks to everyone’s good work, the company had experienced a sharp increase in profits during the previous quarter due to an increase in productivity.  He also said that he wanted to give each team member a monetary bonus.  He handed to each employee a check of $250.  The employees were thrilled.  After thanking the owner, they excitedly told one another how they intended to spend their windfalls.

Apparently, this reinforcement worked.  Soon after the next quarter came to a close, the owner again gathered the team members and told them that the recent term had been even better than the one before.  He handed to each employee a bonus check of $325.  Again, the team members were thrilled.

After the next quarter, the owner happily gave each employee a bonus of $375, reporting that the productivity had been good and the company’s profits had continued to rise.  The team members were glad to receive the money.

At the end of the following quarter, the employees began talking with one another about their upcoming bonus payments and the plans that they had made for their money.   There was a general agreement among them that this quarter’s check would be for at least $400—and possibly more.

When the owner gathered them together for the update, he informed them that profits had taken a drop due to a decrease in productivity, so each bonus check this quarter was for $275.  As soon as the owner walked away, the team members began commiserating and expressing disappointment in the owner for giving them such a small bonus.  One employee reported that she had already spent her bonus money; she had bought for herself an item that cost around $400 and now didn’t have enough money to cover that expense.

The lesson here is to be mindful of the schedules of reinforcement, as per our discussion in APL.  When reinforcement—monetary or verbal—becomes routine and predictable, the receiver comes to feel entitled to it and (more importantly) stops being reinforced by it.  A true variable ratio schedule is what you want:  When you notice excellent work being done, drop in and comment on it, some of the time.  This is the best way to receive excellent work all of the time.

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