The Poisoned Cue: How Management Practices Could Be Affecting Your Employees

In one of my recent blogs, Leaders Can Make or Break Engagement, I provided concrete steps leaders can take to move from managing to coaching.  This topic proves to be a very important one so it seems only fitting to dig deeper into the science of behavior to explain how poor management practices can destroy employee engagement.

For a quick review, there are two consequence strategies for increasing behavior: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement.  Positive reinforcement strengths behavior because some favorable outcome (consequence) is produced contingent on that behavior occurring.  Negative reinforcement strengthens behavior because some unfavorable (or aversive) outcome is escaped from or avoided contingent on that behavior occurring.  Both of these consequences strengthen behavior and therefore might be seen as equally effective in managing employees.  This however, is incorrect.

Although the direct effect on behavior is the same (strengthening behavior), the behavior patterns and the side effects produced by positive and negative reinforcement are vastly different.  Managing through the use of positive reinforcement produces higher rates of responding than negative reinforcement.  This is because, with regard to using negative reinforcement, once the behavior has successfully escaped or avoided the consequence, that behavior stops occurring until the next threat is presented.   The side effects between the two types of reinforcement are opposite in nature.  When managers rely on the use of negative reinforcement to strengthen behavior, the side effects produced are undesired emotional responding such as anxiety and uncertainty, lower moral, lower productivity, sluggish responding, and decreased communication, to name a few.  Another thing can happen as well: You can become a poisoned cue.

So what is a poisoned cue? Technically speaking it is an antecedent that has been paired with both positive reinforcement and punishment (or correction), and begins to elicit undesirable emotional responding when in the presence of the performer.  The term was coined by Karen Pryor, a world leader in using positive reinforcement to train animals, but applies equally well in leadership.  As leaders we are antecedents, providers of antecedents, and providers of consequences for other people’s behavior.  What determines if we become a poisoned cue is, mostly likely, the kinds of consequences we provide.  The higher the ratio of punishment and negative reinforcement we provide, the more likely we are to become a poisoned cue.  Think of it as the smell you carry around with you.  We have all been around someone who smelled unpleasant and no matter what they did or said we wanted to escape their presence.  Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant knows the first thing you do after a night’s work is get out of the clothes you worked in. Why? You smell like the food.  If we pair our presence consistently with punishment and negative reinforcement, then our mere presence can produce the undesired side effects listed above, as well as taint everything that we say or do in an undesirable light.  

The overreliance on punishment and negative reinforcement is a major contributor to employee disengagement with leadership and the organization.  Leaders who become a poisoned cue pay a double tax because the smell follows them around and affects everyone they interact with in undesirable ways, just because the interaction came from them.  And unfortunately, just like working in a restaurant, that smell stays around until there is a change in the consequences the leader provides.  If organizations want an engaged culture, and prevent poisoned cue management, a purposeful and deliberate use of positive reinforcement must be designed into their leadership.

For a more technical description of the poisoned cue, read The Poisoned Cue: Positive and Negative Discriminative Stimuli. To learn more about the four types of consequences and how to effectively use them, read Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness.

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.