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Have you ever considered or stopped to think about what keeps you going at your job? What makes things tick for you? Or even why you keep going in everyday? Is it your company’s vacation and paid time off? Is it your company’s pay compared to other’s in the area where you live? Or maybe it’s your company’s commitment to family values or community. Whatever it is, the reasons with which you find yourself answering these questions are a part of what motivates you. And maybe without you realizing it, you have remained an active participant in the fundamentals of B. F. Skinner's Reinforcement Theory.  

One of the most fundamental and oldest theories of motivation is Reinforcement Theory. Created by Behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1969), Reinforcement Theory looks at the ways in which stimuli in the environment work to shape human behavior (WC L.3, 3). Within Reinforcement Theory also lie several specific ideas, including the Law of Effect, a principal coined by American Psychologist Edward Thorndike (1874-1949), which states that people respond positively to behaviors that produce positive results and avoid behaviors with negative results (WC L.3, 3). This is the reason why successful companies provide incentive packages, benefits packages, and a host of other things to support performance, retention, and employee satisfaction through motivation.  

The Reinforcement Theory can be broken down into four main parts: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, which work to promote preferred behaviors; negative and positive punishment, which work to decrease undesirable behaviors, and extinction (WC L.3, 4). Each of these can be used to affect specific changes and responses in behavior. The following case study will demonstrate how RVR, Inc. can improve working conditions, productivity, and employee morale through the application of Reinforcement Theory.



Case Study  

RVR Inc., the parent company to RVR Assisted Living, has requested an executive review based upon declining results for what they believe to be driven by an under-performing facility. RVR Assisted Living operates two identical 85-bed locations whereby each staff of 50 employees offers 24-hour care to meet the needs of their senior residents. The team at RVR Assisted Living provides nursing care, meets dietary needs, maintains the facility (which includes housekeeping), and provides daily activities to help promote an active lifestyle. RVR Assisted Living’s mission is to be the most admired company in the senior-care industry. To accomplish the mission, the RVR Assisted Living team strives to deliver exceptional care in a welcoming environment made to feel like home. They utilize state of the art technology and practices, and like all RVR Inc. companies, they work hard to be the employer of choice for their industry.  The management review confirmed RVR Inc.’s suspicion that there was a facility not performing up to standard. Location A, the first RVR Assisted Care facility, was successfully meeting company performance standards. They consistently met or exceeded budget, received exceptional feedback relative to the care being provided, and they were often cited for their excellent customer service and commitment to the company values. Location B, while equal to location A with regard to customer demographic, number of beds, and staff size, was found to have not been meeting company targets for an extended period of time. There were frequent customer complaints about the service of the staff, the appearance of the facility, and the overall care being provided by the team. This resulted in high patient turnover, which created inefficiencies driven by facility under-utilization, and ultimately led to poor financial results.  

The company investigation determined that Location B’s sub par performance was the result of low employee morale caused by the facility administrator who was responsible for the general management functions at this location. The administrator’s practices influenced four key areas of employee relations deemed to be causing poor morale: deliberate attempts to hold back overachieving employees, lack of consistency in applying accountability to company values and policies, issuing counseling sessions or undertaking disciplinary action within public view, and micromanaging key supervisory staff responsible for the daily facility operations. These actions resulted in a “revolving door” effect, with employee retention rates of just 72%, far below the company standard retention level of 93% or the exceptional level of 94.5% that Location A was achieving.  

Also included in the investigation results was the finding that Location A’s superior performance was the direct result of employee satisfaction. The employees at this facility were encouraged to develop skills that would expand their knowledge relative to customer care and facility operations, as well as skills pertaining to the functions related to the position as a means to make them promotable. Counseling sessions, or when necessary, disciplinary actions, were always handled confidentially and professionally and always applied consistently. Employees were encouraged to improve in an area in which they were lacking so that their individual performance would progress and meet or exceed company standards. Lastly, the facility management team had the autonomy to make all decisions not deemed “business-critical,” where business-critical was defined as a major event directly and negatively impacting the care of a customer or placing the company under significant financial risk.  

How is reinforcement applied differently at each location?  What steps are available to the management team to help build employee morale at Location B, and what can be done before the business and residents experience any more adverse effects? In order to answer these questions, a new method of reinforcement should be considered.


Employee dissatisfaction can have damaging consequences to productivity and the overall health of an organization. Unusually low employee productivity, lateness or high absenteeism, changes in behavior or personality and customer complaints about employee attitude are good indicators that a serious problem needs to be addressed (Chron. Warning Signs of Decline in Employee Motivation). The situation at RVR, Inc. not only posed a threat to the success of Location A, but also to the overall mission and status of the parent company. If the issue lies within the company, Reinforcement Theory can be an excellent tool to help restore and improve company productivity.  

To learn what makes employees happy, there are several indicators: flexibility, more work time to complete tasks, rewards like compensation and benefits, a good rapport with managerial staff, and the potential to grow in one’s career (Chron. What Makes Up Employee Satisfaction  ). Understanding which rewards your employees will respond positively to will help organizations set realistic goals and implement rewards programs that can improve a struggling workforce.

Possible Solutions

Reinforcement Theory can be applied to the problems discussed at location B. All 4 aspects of the theory: positive
reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, Positive punishment, and Negative punishment can have positive results. 


Positive Punishment

An owner of the company should come to location B and after seeing how the administrator is running it, punish he/she in an appropriate manner.  They could be scolded by the owners and possibly sent for retraining to align themselves better with company policies and patient needs.  They could be suspended or sent elsewhere in the company.

Negative Punishment

The administrator could be  temporarily stripped of a managerial position.  They could be demoted temporarily or permanently.  By taking away the power from someone who is clearly running the location wrong, the owners could get a start on turning their business around in this location.  Uninvolved owners can be the reason for allowing an administrator to run the location as they see fit and use their power to harass employees and lose focus on the elderly patients in their care.

Positive Reinforcement

Employees could be allowed to earn higher levels of pay and job status by showing good work ethic and skills.  Bonuses could help morale and also having the company pay for additional training and certificates that could help the employee perform their tasks better and earn more money at their job.  Employees could also be praised at a job well done, thus boosting morale and personal satisfaction. 

Negative Reinforcement

By the removal of power of the administrator that was causing problems, employees could feel free to perform their duties without the micromanagement of an out of control administrator.  Restraining or "muzzling" this person can give the employees a sense of autonomy and a feeling that the company trusts them to perform their job without constant supervision. 

Basically the administrator has been the one causing most of the problems at location B.  By having someone who is clearly chasing their own agenda in control, employees felt powerless and marginalized, thus they left for other jobs.  High turnover rate affects quality and reputation of the work and the company.  Having a better administrator is the first step in making a better workplace and rataining empolyees that can grow and advance themselves. 

Resolution (Conclusion)  

One way to influence motivation in the workplace is to use replacement behaviors to encourage extinction of undesirable behaviors. If a worker exhibits a poor attitude regarding a specific task, address the attitude and immediately demonstrate the proper way to do it. For example, if an employee is on the phone while there are clients who need attending, addressing the phone usage and suggesting a replacement behavior such as performing one on one visitations with residents during down time, will eventually extinguish the unwanted behavior (Discovering Change Management Theories).  

What would you do if you saw a fellow employee breaking the rules and you did not feel comfortable enough to go to your supervisor for guidance? Or if that supervisor either ignored your concerns or seemed to lack the people skills and training to handle the situation that occurred? How would that make you feel on a day to day basis... Odds are it would make you feel invaluable and basically invisible. When you have a supervisor who stands behind and defends you it makes a huge impact, and maybe it will even give you more of a drive to work harder and help that supervisor and company succeed.    

This needs to be done because in order for your employees to be successful they should have a role model to look up to and someone they can go to when they have an issue. Supervisors should not only know everything about their line of work, but they need to know also how to encourage, motivate and guide their employees.  Investing in a training program for the management team can provide many benefits for a company. Not only are supervisors better equipped to handle specific and sometimes challenging situations, but they will be more confident and also be great mentors for the employees.  The American Management Association Network (do we need a citation here) provides recommendations on classes such as: 

  1. Carrying out Effective Face-to-Face Meetings with Staff
  2. Coaching and Counseling for Outstanding Job Performances
  3. Dealing With Conflict In Your Team
  4. Successfully Managing People
  5. Leadership Skills for Supervisors

There is an enormous difference in having an effective supervisor in a leadership position versus one that has not been properly trained.It makes all the difference in the world and the company would greatly benefit from having supervisors be trained in all aspects of their job. It is better to know more about something than to not know enough. Holding trainings encourages growth, which leads to increased motivation as employees can see that the company has an interest in promoting from within. Employees respond well when opportunities to fill management positions are granted to those who demonstrate both leadership and technical skills.A supervisor who has knowledge, education and people skills are assets to companies. When a supervisor obtains these characteristics they can not only help their employees succeed, but help the company as a whole succeed. Working with employees and helping them feel secure in their jobs makes a world of a difference.  


Christensen, Maria. “Signs of Unsatisfied Employees”. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved: 23 January 2013. <>   

“Discovering Change Management Theories”. Retrieved: 25 January 2013. <>  

Johnson, Rose. “What Makes Up Employee Satisfaction?”. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved: 23 January 2013 <>  

“Management and Supervisory Skills Seminars”. Retrieved: 25 January 2013.<>  

Measom, Cynthia. “The Warning Signs of the Decline in Employee Motivation”. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 23 January 2013. <>  

Penn State University (2012) Psych484: Work Attitudes and Motivation, Lesson 3   World Campus. Penn State. Psychology 484. Lesson 3. pp 1-12. Retrieved: 23 January 2013. <>      


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