How to Use Positive Reinforcement in Employee Training

How to Use Positive Reinforcement in Employee Training

What is the best way to motivate your team and encourage them to be more proactive when it comes to learning and professional development? There’s one great method often dubbed as “the most powerful leadership tool” and it is positive reinforcement.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is the practice of giving a desirable or pleasant stimulus (reward) after a certain behavior, to reinforce its recurrence. It simple words it stands for strategic praising to encourage certain actions among your employees.

However, positive reinforcement is just one of the four types of conditioning, according to B. F. Skinner’s psychological model.

Skinner, a famed behaviorist and psychologist, developed an operant conditioning theory, based on the premise that in order to regulate one’s behavior, you need to understand what’s triggering this behavior and its consequences. Skinner’s research was based on an earlier reinforcement theory by Thorndike called the “law of effect”. This theory stated that every behavior followed by a positive stimulus is likely to get repeated. While behaviors followed by an unpleasant consequence are more likely to get avoided.

Skinner’s model identifies four methods of conditioning:

  1. Positive reinforcement – certain behavior results from a a positive stimulus.
  2. Positive punishment –  certain behavior is deterred by an unpleasant stimulus
  3. Negative reinforcement – an unpleasant stimulus is removed to encourage the behavior.
  4. Negative punishment – a positive stimulus is removed to deter the behavior.

Manager can use each of these conditioning methods to train, teach and manage a person’s behavior in different environments.

Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

Positive and negative reinforcement pursue the same goal at first glance: both are aimed at promoting certain behaviors. But they use different stimulus mechanisms. Let’s illustrate this with an example.

A sales associate receives a $1,500 bonus for closing a new deal – that’s positive reinforcement. The boss removes a sales associate from the “underperformers board” after they meet their monthly quota – that’s negative reinforcement.

A Quick Positive Reinforcement Example in Employee Training

This is an actual case study that took place in 2006. One branch manager needed to increase the number of branded credit card sign-ups at Sears Department Store in Pennsylvania. So he created a new set of questions that employees should have asked the client every time such as “Would you like to open a Sears credit card today to save ten dollars off of your purchase?”.

Yet the majority of customers were refusing the offer. Such negative reinforcement had made fewer employees to attempt the card upsell. So he decided to add some positive reinforcement to the mix.

First, he offered $2 extra to each employee paycheck for every successful credit card application if they closed at least 5 per month. Even if the customer later declined the credit, the employee still received their reward. Every 90 days the management team would count all the applications, and the top upseller would receive some positive recognition:

After switching the approach to employee motivation, Sears became the number one store for credit card applications in Pennsylvania.

Just How Well Positive Reinforcement Works for Training and Development?

Positive reinforcement is a a great mean to boost employee motivation and engagement. But this technique can also work miracles when it comes to promoting employee training and development opportunities, especially the self-learning ones. Here are some positive reinforcement stats to back this up:

  • According to the 2016 Incentive Research Foundation report, 93% of top-performing companies have executives who are not just willing to provide rewards and recognition to remain competitive but are strong supporters of non-cash rewards and recognition as a competitive advantage for the organization.
  • A paper published by the Haas School of Business indicates that one-time, outcome-based financial incentive can be highly effective to induce workers’ long-term commitment to training and self-development.
  • Another study conducted in New Zealand suggests that helping employees with paying tuition can lead to increased employee confidence in job-related competency, higher levels of job satisfaction and increased motivation for further intellectual growth.

The Four Types of Positive Reinforcers Worth Using in Employee Training

The operant conditioning theory recognizes four types of positive reinforcers (types of stimuli) that have proven to be the most effective:

  1. Natural reinforcers come as a direct result of someone’s behavior. For instance, an employee works hard and receives the promised monthly bonus.
  2. Token reinforcers are small awards/recognitions given out after performing a certain behavior. They can be exchanged for something of value. For instance, an employee receives 15 stars (max) after completing their compliance training course. They can then “spend” those stars for some reward e.g. exchange for a gift card or save them up for a bigger “purchase”.
  3. Social reinforcers are personal expressions of approval for certain behavior. For instance, a boss says “Good job!” to one of the juniors.
  4. Tangible reinforcers are actual physical rewards such as cash, award certificates, accolades etc.

3 Strategies for Incorporating Positive Reinforcement in Employee Training

You can use the reinforcers mentioned  above to incentivize certain employees’ behaviors regarding training and professional development. But should your company offer a reward for training in the first place and if yes, in what instances?

In general, training rewards do pay off. Case in point: At Hudson Trail Outfitters, a retailer with 300 employees at five stores, 95% of sales employees participated in the three-pronged training program. After completion of each module, they were offered different incentives. Post-roll-out, the company witnessed a significant increase in employee engagement and reduced turnover. The average tenure of a sales associate increased by 30%.

The types of training rewards and cases when those should be introduced will vary from organization to organization. But in general, the following options are seen as the most effective ones:

  • Assign rewards to programs that focus on opportunities that increase the value of an individual to the company.
  • Incentives for applying learned materials in real-world scenarios.
  • Positive reinforcement for completing the training.

Below are several positive reinforcement examples, illustrating how different rewards mechanisms can be implemented in training.

1. Consider Using Tangible Reinforcers to Foster Training Complexion

That’s the most common route companies with sufficient budgets take. For instance, IBM as part of their Know Your IBM reward program for sales partners offers gift cards and product certificates to people who complete their training online. This way they ensure that their partners have the latest knowledge about their offerings and can fully explain the capabilities and benefits of IBM’s tech product to potential buyers.

Specsavers, an international optical and hearing business, introduced a more advanced training incentive program that is backed by both token and social reinforcers at the same time. Every new hire needs to complete the company’s online training program. For each finished training block, the employee receives some virtual coins. Afterwards, they can choose to donate those coins to one of SpecSavers official charities.

This type of incentive is strongly aligned with the company’s culture and values, as the organization regularly works with different charities.

As a result, everyone is at win:

  • Employees have a unique incentive to motivate their training participation.
  • The company also positively reinforces their core principles.

2. Mix Various Types of Reinforcers

It’s in our human nature to respond positively to instant gratification. However, at some point we just feel bored and stop responding to repetitive stimuli. Getting a gift card to the same restaurant five times in a row is not that fun, right?

Hence, for trainers and managers, it’s important to mix-and-match different reinforcers depending on the occasion. A Gallup study identified that people tend to find the next six forms of recognition to be the most memorable and meaningful:

  • Public recognition and/or acknowledgment presented as an award, certificate of appreciation
  • Recognition provided privately from a superior, peer or a customer.
  • High score given during an evaluation, review or another form of scored feedback.
  • Promotion or increase in the scope of given work, responsibility or trust.
  • Cash awards such as a trip, prize or pay increase
  • Personal satisfaction or pride in work.

Add all of these types of recognition into your training programs.

3. Timing is Crucial for Positive Reinforcement

Just like the form of recognition/incentives should vary, so should the timing. Don’t give out appraisals too frequently, but neither reserve them for special occasions only. Specifically, you’ll want to stick to the following four timing best practices:

  1. Positive reinforcement should be immediate: Don’t delay the praise. When a person does something great, provide the feedback as soon as possible. Introduce ratings after every complete training module. Or perhaps even consider a small gamification element (e.g. a positive sound or color) that will follow each correct response to the question.
  2. It should also be gradual, meaning that it should follow a performance improvement, which in most cases is gradual.
  3. Keep it Proportional. Exaggerated positive reinforcers will do the opposite job and eventually lead to a decrease in learners motivation. In other words, don’t give a $100 prize for completing just the first training module. Keep the best rewards stored in the very end of the learners’ journey.
  4. Provide Frequent, but unpredictable positive reinforcement. Being a bit random with when you are doling out the praise keeps people motivated for longer. When people receive regular praise for doing X, Y, Z all the time, they quickly lose interest. But when the conditions change, they stay more alert and eager to take action to reach that new bar.


Positive reinforcement is a great tool for ensuring that your teams do their best work and receive regular rewards for that. Whether they are cash or not, it does not always matter as the data referenced in this post shows. So if you are looking for a quick and affordable way to offer recognition to your employees, especially for their training efforts, consider downloading one of our free certificates of appreciation today!

Photo by Bruce Mars

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