The 12 Days of Reinforcement

Like so many people, I grew up with the traditional song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” We’ve sung the verses many times even though the gifts given by the “True Love” seem somewhat odd. A bit of research, however, reveals that the song’s lyrics are based on religious symbolism. The True Love, for example, refers to God; the two turtle doves to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the five golden rings to the first five books of the Old Testament, and so forth. It occurs to me that like the song, many of the behaviors we engage in at work and many of the ways we try to reinforce are often ineffective because we fail to recognize the underlying meaning and interpretation of what our words, actions, or lack thereof really mean to others.

No matter which holiday one celebrates, human behavior continues to be shaped, reinforced or punished by consequences, with immediate consequences following behavior being the most influential. With that in mind, I’ve put together 12 suggestions for creating a positively reinforcing environment, not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.

On the first day: Remember that behavior means taking action. Don’t assume employees know you appreciate their efforts just because they receive a regular paycheck. As the old saying goes, “If people are not told overtly and clearly that they are appreciated, they will assume the opposite.” If you appreciate their effort and contributions, tell them! Take the time to ask them how they are doing and actively listen to their answers. Ask about their holiday plans. You don’t have to stick around forever, but asking and listening is a sign of caring. This tip works for co-workers too.

On the second day: Keep in mind that your peers and managers enjoy reinforcement too. A smile and a thank you for their efforts also makes your day brighter. Smiles usually pay their way forward. People who are reinforced, reinforce others more often.

On the third day: Make small, tangible gifts meaningful. Especially around the holidays, companies may offer their employees tangible items as a token of appreciation. In this case, it’s a bit difficult to make such items specific to each person’s wish list. A partridge in a pear tree (or a Christmas turkey) may not be the ideal gift for everyone, but if accompanied by a sincere note or words of appreciation, recipients will understand the positive symbolism of the gesture.

On the fourth day: Celebrate throughout the year. Remember to reinforce behavior and celebrate results. A celebration doesn’t have to cost a dime. It can be as simple as a round of applause and a few congratulatory words. When you see a result where you were not able to see the behaviors that created them, simply ask the question, “How did you do that?” That is a perfect lead in for the person to tell you how hard she worked, how smart or clever she was, etc.

On the fifth day: Let people know that the gifts they give to the organization are important — the gift of their extra effort, their time, their commitment. Write a positive note; stop by to say, “Great job!” on a helpful effort someone has made; remind someone of how he or she makes the team and the company successful. Chances are the recipients of your actions will be in good spirits for at least the rest of the day.

On the sixth day: Practice the basics of positive reinforcement: make it sincere, specific, immediate and positive. If you deliver positive reinforcement in this way, you will make your very presence a positive reinforcer. The side effects of being a positively reinforcing person are that you feel better and your relationship with employees and co-workers makes for a more productive and satisfying workplace.

On the seventh day: Just say hello! Can you imagine leaving your home for work every morning without speaking a word to your family? To experience your workplace as a home away from home, you have to consider your co-workers and your employees as you would your family. One holiday song states, “Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet!” It’s not a bad rule for the entire year, so make season’s greetings an all-season’s practice.

On the eighth day: Customers are people too! With all of the stresses that come with the holidays and year-end deadlines, many of us are on edge, and that includes customers. If customers greet you with complaints, practice active listening and respond with statements such as “I understand why that would be a problem” or “Let me see what I can do for you.”

On the ninth day: Give the gift of time. In this tough economy, some businesses are struggling to stay afloat, so bonuses are out of the question. Possibly a bonus could be a prolonged lunch hour, a shortened work day or even an extra day off to get some shopping done or to attend a child’s school event. Such occasional considerations for hard workers definitely add cheer throughout the year and are a great way to recognize a job well done.

On the 10th day: Keep up the spirits. No, I’m not recommending drinking on the job. Whenever possible, share good news about the company in a brief meeting or at least via a company intranet or announcement. Good news doesn’t always have to be about a monumental result. It can come in the form of a new or prospective client, improved performance or improved results. With bad news barraging us from seemingly all directions, it’s OK to talk about the small things that give us hope.

On the 11th day: Don’t cry over broken ornaments. When people make honest mistakes, they (and the company) suffer the consequences. But everyone makes mistakes. Learn from them, sweep up the pieces, forgive and don’t label people. Move on.

On the 12th day: Have fun! Do something to make work more fun every day. Share a funny story. Laugh with others. Laughter is good for the soul and for the workplace. Create challenging, short, work-related goals or accomplishments that inspire teamwork. For example, take score on a measure and set a goal to outsell or outperform an industry benchmark. Work can be an enjoyable game if you set up the right parameters.

These are just a few ways that people can make their workplace more positively reinforcing … and with few exceptions, one doesn’t have to be in a position of authority to practice these behaviors year round. We have many opportunities throughout each day to make people feel good about what they do and to observe what type of recognition affects them positively. As I wrote in my book, Bringing Out the Best in People, “What you do to someone does not define positive reinforcement; it is defined by what happens to the person’s behavior after you do it.” Happy holidays to all!