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Most of us have had the opportunity to work under great, and unfortunately not so great, leaders. More than likely when you worked with great leaders you delivered high levels of discretionary effort and enjoyed the work you did. Under poor leaders, you might have found yourself increasingly unmotivated and burdened by the work.
From a behavioral science perspective, the ability to alter the reinforcing value of a consequence has been discussed and studied since B. F. Skinner’s book The Behavior of Organisms was published in 1938. The value of a consequence can be increased or decreased by a person’s learning history or by pairing the consequence with some additional reinforcing or punishing consequence. Said differently, leaders are an important source of consequences for an employee’s behavior as well as they influence how the employee experiences other consequences. Therefore, leaders have the ability to amplify or destroy the reinforcing value of consequences, by what they say or do.
Leaders can destroy reinforcement by:
Leadership behaviors like these leave employees frustrated or finding less value in consequences that originally may have carried reinforcing properties.
Leaders can create reinforcement by:
These types of leadership behaviors can increase the reinforcing value of consequences produced by the work.
The examples above show how leaders have the ability to both create and destroy reinforcing value. If leaders focus on developing behaviors that create reinforcement and remove behaviors that devalue reinforcement, their direct reports will deliver high levels of discretionary effort and be more engaged in the organization.
Additional reading on the topic
Micheal, J. (1993). Establishing Operations. The Behavior Analyst, 16, 191-206.
Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
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