Workplace Stress Strategies: Reinforcing the Right Behavior

Identify the behavior what you want, determine some critical measures so that you know when you have the desired behavior and then make sure you are available to reinforce it when it appears.

This process will not produce dramatic instant change. You may have to begin by reinforcing small manifestations of the behavior – or even accidental expressions of it!

Consistent positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior can reduce workplace stress.

Have you clearly identified the type of behavior that you want from your staff?

If you are not clear on what these behaviors should be then you could be inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate or undesirable behavior.

A classic example of reinforcing inappropriate behavior is evident in the rewarding of staff for the marketing and sales of sub-prime loans.

The Federal bailout of the banks could also be tagged as reinforcing inappropriate behavior. The message sent in this instance is that reckless behavior that leads to a corporate financial collapse will be reinforced by Federal Government rescue packages.

Remember that reinforced behavior will almost certainly be repeated.

Just think what you could accomplish if your started to use positive reinforcement in your business. The first step in bringing about behavioral change is to clearly determine the nature of the behavior that you want to reinforce. This planning stage is absolutely essential to ensure that the people who are going to deliver the reinforcement have agreed on the areas of change.

Workplace Example of Reinforcing the Right Behavior.

Let’s assume that your Goods Despatch Department has become unusually slack and that orders are not getting out on time and that some are being despatched to incorrect destinations.

You might set up a meeting with the Stores Despatch Manager and the Sales Manager to determine the behaviors that are to be reinforced.

These behaviors could include:

(a) Despatching goods within 24 hours of the order being received;

(b) Correctly addressing the order and assigning it to the appropriate courier.

Once these actions have been identified as the desired behaviors then a strategy of positive reinforcement can be applied to the successful demonstration of those behaviors.

For example, at the end of a shift the Stores Despatch Manager could praise the members of his team for processing X numbers of orders within the specified time.

Individual members of the team could be praised for extra effort in assembling or addressing orders.

All members of the team should be invited to offer their suggestions as to how the standards can be maintained. It is highly likely that they will produce some practical and insightful ideas that can be used to ensure the despatch goals are met. Their involvement and participation could be a major contribution to sorting out the problem.

The Importance of Linking Behavior to Measurable Outcomes.

I never fail to be amazed that goals are set for employees by Managers without carefully considering how these goals are to be met. If a sales team is told that they must increase sales by 20% during the next twelve months but are not given any clear direction as to how this objective can be met then it should not be surprising when the outcome falls far short of the target.

I am not suggesting that targets should not be increased but rather that the “why” should be justified and the”how” should be worked out in consultation with the teams required to deliver.

When employees are encouraged to participate and their ideas and suggestions are valued then their motivation is enhanced and workplace stress is reduced.

If the goal is “increased sales” then this is the performance that is to be reinforced and reinforcement strategies should be developed accordingly.

Clinical Examples of Inappropriate Reinforcement.

You should also be alert to the problems that arise when you reinforce the wrong behavior. A teenage girl exhibiting compulsive hand washing behavior was being reinforced in that behavior by her parents who were unwittingly providing towels, soap and attention whenever she washed her hands. She was also receiving additional reinforcement from her psychiatrist who was carefully exploring her obsessive thoughts week after week. When these unintentional reinforcements were altered and more appropriate ones substituted the obsessive behavior was eliminated (Silverman, 1977).

Litin, Griffin & Johnson (1956) describe the development of transvestism in a young boy through inappropriate reinforcement. The young lad continually dressed up in his mother’s clothes and also applied makeup and jewellery. His mother inappropriately rewarded this behavior by demonstrations of affection and approval and constantly supplied the boy with generous quantities of old shoes, hats, bridal veils and other female apparel. (Bandura, 1969).

Beware of Attention Getting Behavior.

If you give your attention to staff only when they loudly protest about things then you are reinforcing that attention-getting behavior.

If your sales staff are praised for their meticulous attention to record-keeping but receive infrequent verbal commendations for sales results then don’t be surprised if they are inclined to hang around the office rather than make sales calls.

If the only time the Production Manager can get to see you is when he has a problem to discuss then you’ll probably waste a lot of time putting out minor fires rather than dealing with major issues.

It is vitally important that you reinforce the behavior that you want otherwise you will end up inadvertently reinforcing undesirable behavior.

Let me once again emphasize the importance of reinforcing desired behavior. If the desired behavior receives no attention or reward then it may not be strengthened enough to produce change.

How to Reinforce Behavior With Appropriate Feedback.

If a client gives you positive feedback about the service received from a staff member who is making a real effort to improve the quality of her customer service then make sure that you pass that information on. You should go out of your way to share the client feedback with the staff member and to tell them how good you felt about that outcome and their level of service. By doing this you increase the probability that the desired behavior will be repeated.

In the example given above the exchange might go something like this:

Manager: “Susan from (Company X) was very impressed with the way you processed their order last week Jane! I was impressed too. Your work in the service area is first class and I feel good that our clients recognize it as well.”

It is most appropriate that Managers should investigate customer complaints but it is also appropriate that Managers reward and reinforce good performance. This is a practical and beneficial way of reducing workplace stress.


Bandura, A. (1969) Principles of Behavior Modification. Holt, Rinehard & Winston, Inc. New York.

Litin, Griffin & Johnson (1956) Parental Influence in Unusual Sexual Behaviour in Children, Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Silverman, P.J (1977) The role of social reinforcement in maintaining an obsessive-compulsive neurosis. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 8, 325-326

John Townsend

My name is John Townsend and I have been working as a Stress Management Consultant since 1986. My seminar, Get Tough With Stress, has been presented to thousands of people throughout the world and shows people how to toughen up to stress and to transform stressful experiences into valuable learning experiences.