Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

The reinforcement theory holds that as an employer you can influence and change the behavior of employees by reinforcement, punishment or extinction. To encourage the behavior you would like to see in your organization rewards are awarded and for prevention of undesirable behaviors punishment is meted out.

To stop a learned behavior from continuing in the work place extinction is done. When a manager applies reinforcement, punishment or extinction the process is referred to as ope-rant condition.

Reinforcement can be either Positive Reinforcement or Negative Reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement- It happens when you as an employer gives a positive response to an employee’s behavior that is likely to impact the organization well. For example, if an employee comes to work early to get ahead of an important project praising them for putting in more time towards the project is positive reinforcement.

This form of reinforcement can also include giving the individual a bonus or some sort of reward. Positive reinforcement is likely to encourage employees to keep doing the desired behavior. It has been noted that employees are more likely to be receptive to change, excited about their job, team players etc. When they are positively reinforced for good work done by management.

Negative Reinforcement- It can be used to motivate employees to behave how you desire so that they don’t have to suffer the negative consequences of not doing so. Here a negative consequence is withheld should the employees behave as you wish. Let’s say an employee has not been meeting deadlines.

As a manager you can instruct them to give you daily reports on their progress towards meeting the deadline. They may not like this and will most likely change their behavior to ensure they always meet required deadlines. Once they demonstrate they can consistently deliver on time you stop requesting for the daily progress reports this acts as negative reinforcement.

Punishment– This happens when you impose a negative consequence to stop or reduce behaviors you don’t want at the work place. For, example getting a warning for reporting late to work is punishment that is imposed on staff who don’t come to work on time. To discourage them from being late again, a behavior that is not desired. Another example would be suspending an employee found stealing from work.

Don’t confuse this with negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement withholds a negative consequence to encourage good behavior while punishment imposes a negative consequence to discourage bad behavior. A threat of punishment can be given in negative reinforcement but is not followed through when an employee performs well.

Extinction– This is done to bring to an end a behavior employees have learnt over a given period of time. During a busy period a manager may decide to give some positive reinforcement in the form of overtime pay to encourage employees to work extra hours and come in during the weekends.

When business slows down the manager stops approving overtime a move aimed at dissuading employees from working extra hours and weekends. So, that behavior will be forgotten after some time because the positive reinforcement that encouraged it has been withdrawn. You should be careful how you do this because when an employee is no longer receiving positive reinforcement they might feel unappreciated and they morale and productivity could go down which will definitely impact your business negatively.

Schedules of Reinforcement

For the effectiveness of the reinforcement theory a schedule of reinforcement which gives when and how positive or negative reinforcement is provided is necessary. The schedule can be

Continuous Rienforcement- Which happens every time employee’s demonstrate the desired behavior.

Intermittent Reinforcement– Since a manager cannot always be available to offer reinforcement for desired behaviors this type of schedule is what is used in many organizations. It can be done in three ways

Fixed Interval Schedule– Here reinforcement is done in between fixed time periods like with a biweekly paycheck.

Variable Interval Schedule– Reinforcement is given at different times, no schedule is followed. For example if your boss comes to work and finds you are there and proceeds to praise you for coming in early that wasn’t planned.

Variable Ratio Schedule– This is reinforcement given after a number of set out desired behaviors are achieved. A good way to achieve this is buy giving a bonus as positive reinforcement when all the desired behaviors are achieved.


For managers the reinforcement theory can be an effective tool to give positive reinforcement to their star performers and negative reinforcement to poor performers. Also it may come in hand to punish bad behavior and extinguish unwanted behavior. Since it is difficult to find a motivation system that works for all employee this theory due to its focus on employee’s behavior and performance is good for managing a diverse group to achieve the desired results.

Sonia Kukreja

I am a mother of a lovely kid, and an avid fan technology, computing and management related topics. I hold a degree in MBA from well known management college in India. After completing my post graduation I thought to start a website where I can share management related concepts with rest of the people.
Sonia Kukreja