Management Methods: Operant Conditioning Explored

Management Methods: Operant Conditioning Explored
March 20, 2015 James Timpson

Operant conditioning is a theory of behaviour which rests on the assumption that learning works best when it is accompanied by both positive reinforcement and punishments for negative behaviour.

Operant conditioning is sometimes referred to as instrumental learning and this was first proposed by Jerzy Konorski, who was further developing the work of Ivan Pavlov. Konorski’s studies were expanded on and popularised by Professor of Psychology at Harvard, B.F. Skinner, who is seen as the first proponent of operant conditioning. Skinner’s theory is now being used as a management tool, a tool which has shown good results in a number of ways within a corporate environment.


One of the cornerstones of operant conditioning is positive reinforcement. This can be provided in the working environment as verbal praise and by giving monetary incentives such as pay increases, generous employee benefits, commission schemes and bonuses. When an employee is motivated their engagement rises and subsequently so does productivity.


Another way to reward employees is through the provision of a comfortable and pleasant working environment. If this office is also based in a prestigious part of town it naturally increases feelings of esteem as the employee recognises that they are working for a company which is prospering. As Skyline Offices highlights this prestigious address is easier to achieve if the business is based in a serviced environment.


Dividing your employees into teams is a way of providing both positive reinforcement and potentially a form of punishment for bad behaviour. If the team does well then obviously they are going to hit their targets and receive the praise or promotions they desire. However, if the team fares badly, especially if failure is down to a small percentage of its members, not only will those failing members incur a negative backlash from their direct managers but they also risk being viewed and treated negatively by other, higher performing, members of the team.

Therefore, in this scenario operant conditioning serves as a motivator for each individual member of the team to perform to their best ability and work towards the reward they all aspire to.

Using Sales as a Reward

In a customer services, marketing or sales department the positive reinforcement employees seek can be very clearly provided by the customer making a purchase. The sale is the reward and therefore employees are highly motivated to learn what factors lead to a sale and therefore what they need to do to hit their targets. A target which will provide further positive reinforcement as it leads to more money in their pay cheque.


One of the best ways to provide positive reinforcement in the workplace, and the positive should always outweigh the punishments for negative behaviour, is through communication.

This can take many forms, from a smile, nod or word of encouragement at a difficult moment, through to the key areas outlined below:

· Appraisals: In an appraisal situation managers should always start with the positive elements of a person’s performance before moving on to the areas which need improvement. In addition, when the weaker areas are discussed the employee should always be provided with constructive, actionable ways to reach the level that is being asked of them.

· Professionalism: Whether the manager is providing positive or negative feedback it should always be conveyed in a professional manner. This means providing clear examples of where the employee has done well or fallen short in the workplace. It shouldn’t be an opportunity to raise any question marks over the employee’s life choices or behaviour outside the workplace unless this behaviour directly impacts their job performance.

· Timeliness: People love to receive praise and feedback for great work and this can be as important as a financial reward. Ensure that praise is provided immediately, or as soon after as possible, the desired outcome is achieved. This will encourage further positive results going forward.

· Consistency: Finally, it is important to be consistent when utilising operant conditioning in the workplace. Providing negative or positive reinforcement inconsistently can lead to employees feeling that they are being treated differently to their peers and thus unfairly.

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