Be Careful What You Reinforce

Categories: BMT Courses, FeedbackAuthor:

In our courses, we often say, “punish the behavior, not the person.”

So, instead of saying, “Jim, you are such a downer,” you could say, “Jim, whenever I bring you a new idea, you tend to list all of the reasons it won’t work rather than thinking about what value it could bring and ways it could work.  It makes me not want to bring you ideas.”

The first one sounds like a trait that can’t be changed and such a sweeping statement might produce a serious blow to the ego and maybe even retaliation.  The second one, while still probably difficult to hear, describes a behavior, the consequence of that behavior, and what you’d like to see instead.  It’s actionable and less likely to make Jim want to throw his coke in your face.

However, I have rarely, until recently, heard people articulate that we should be careful to reinforce behavior, not people.  Some recent research highlights why it’s important.

Researcher Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Columbia University conducted a study with children who completed IQ tests and praised one group for their intelligence and the other group for their hard work.  When asked if, for the next problem set, the kids would prefer an easy or hard test, most of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy test and most of those praised for their effort chose the hard test.

Why would this be?  The kids praised for their intelligence may have wanted to continue to appear capable while those praised for their hard work may have wanted to continue to demonstrate how hard they work.

When given another round of tests that were equally as hard as the first test, those praised for effort improved and those praised for smarts got worse.  You can read more about this study here:

Think about this study the next time you give a performance review and ask yourself if you are reinforcing or punishing behaviors or traits.

One Response to Be Careful What You Reinforce

  1. David Wiss says:

    Nicole you need a “LIKE” button. For me this said learn how to reinforce by framing your words around behaviour. Thanks.


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