Are You a Reinforcement Creator or Killer?

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:

  • downplaying or devaluing the significance of the work or result.
  • removing ownership of the result from the worker and giving it to themselves or others.
  • pointing out faults in other work or results when discussing the current work or result.
  • providing criticism about the result or behaviors leading to the result.
  • removing connections between the accomplishment and how it affects the company or end user.

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:

  • purposely discussing the significance of the work or result by connecting it to company mission, values, strategic initiatives, or how important the results are to them.
  • communicating ownership of the result and how the team achieved it.
  • pinpointing exactly how the team or individual’s behavior played a crucial role in producing the result. 
  • providing positive feedback and reinforcement for behaviors that produced the results.
  • creating a connection between the work and how it helps the company or end user—even bringing end users into the feedback loop.

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

Article: The Role of the Establishing Operation in Performance Management: Changing the Value of Consequences


Micheal, J. (1993). Establishing Operations. The Behavior Analyst, 16, 191-206.


Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts



Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.