Police in Chicago are often given the difficult task of identifying and arresting those responsible for committing crimes within the city. They have a pretty good track record of getting convictions via sworn confessions, but sometimes people admit to crimes they didn’t commit. Why would anybody do this? The television news program 60 Minutes conducted an investigation of wrongful convictions in Chicago to find out. Tactics used by the Chicago police unit to obtain confessions included: refusing food, drink, or use of the toilet, and other means of psychological and physical pain. Multiply these tactics over a few hours, days, or even weeks and it’s no wonder people will say and do anything to escape the situation, including giving false confessions to murder or rape. Over the last few years 189 convictions have been overturned after further investigation was carried out.
Negative reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood concepts in behavioral science, and also one of the most common ways of managing people in organizations. Negative reinforcement is also responsible for generating unhappy, anxious, and unmotivated employees. The first step to minimizing its use is understanding what it is.
Negative reinforcement increases behavior. Someone has experienced negative reinforcement whenever they have engaged in a behavior in order to avoid or escape an aversive situation. An example might be consistently delivering a report just before it is due. The behavior of ‘delivering reports’ is likely to occur because the employee will be reprimanded otherwise. An indication that someone is guilty of this type of management involves the timing of report submission. If your people are consistently submitting work just before the deadline, you’re likely providing negative reinforcement for work completion. Another way to test this is to make a few tasks optional and see how many people complete them. If nobody does, you can bet you manage people with negative reinforcement.
Another example is giving in to a child’s request for something (say, a toy at the toy store). The child kicking and screaming on the floor might just prompt you to give in. This behavior, giving in, ends the embarrassing situation happening in front of amused onlookers. Remember, negative reinforcement increases behavior. Agreeing to purchase the toy resulted in shutting the little squirt up and increased the chances that you’ll give in next time because your giving-in was reinforced. Negative reinforcement is why we take aspirin when we have a headache, or scratch a mosquito bite. Those behaviors all eliminate aversive conditions.
The good news is there are ways to get results (and manage behavior) that don’t require negative reinforcement. Create an environment where people want to add value not because they have to, but because they want to. Start by recognizing achievement when appropriate. When you must provide constructive feedback, be sure it’s pinpointed. People tend to accept feedback much better when it is specific. Count the number of punishers (face to face comments, remarks in e-mails and so on) you deliver in a day and work to reduce that number. Find opportunities to tell people what you like about what they’re doing to increase the chance you’re seen as a deliverer of positive reinforcement, instead of negative reinforcement.
There will always be some situations that require a bit of negative reinforcement. It’s not that we should never use negative reinforcement; it’s that we should learn to use it in the right time and place. If your employees are confessing to crimes they didn’t commit or doing everything just before the deadline, you’re probably using too much.