Concept of Reinforcement in Organizational Behavior

Reinforcement is the attempt to develop or strengthen desirable behavior. There are two types of reinforcement in organizational behavior: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement strengthens and enhances behavior by the presentation of positive reinforcers. There are primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers satisfy basic biological needs and include food and water. However, primary reinforcers don not always reinforce. For instance, food may not be a reinforcer to someone who has just completed a five course meal. Most behaviors in organizations are influenced by secondary reinforcers. These include such benefits as money, status, grades, trophies and praise from others. These include such benefits as money, status, grades, trophies and praise from others. These become positive reinforcers because of their associations with the primary reinforcers and hence are often called conditioned reinforcers.

Reinforcement in Organizational Behavior

It should be noted that an event that functions as a positive reinforce at one time or in one context may have a different effect at another time or in another place. For example, food may serve as a positive reinforcer for a person who is hungry, but not when the person, as stated above, has already a large meal. Clearly, a stimulus that functions as a positive reinforcer for one person may fail to operate in a similar manner for another person.

Within itself, positive reinforcement has several principles.

  • The principle of contingent reinforcement states that the reinforcer must be administered only if the desired behavior has occurred. A reinforcer administered when the desired behavior has not been performed becomes ineffective.
  • The principle of immediate reinforcement states that the reinforcer will be most effective if administered immediately after the desired behavior has occurred. The more time that elapses after the behavior occurs, the less effective the reinforcer will be.
  • The principle of reinforcement size stated that the larger the amount of reinforcement delivered after the desired behavior, the more effect the reinforcer will have on the frequency of the desired behavior. The amount or size of reinforcer is relative. A reinforcer that may be insignificant to one person may be significant to another person. Thus, the size of the reinforcer must be determined in relation both to the behavior and the individual.
  • The principle of reinforcement deprivation states that the more a person is deprived of the reinforcer, the greater effect it will have on the future occurrence of the desired behavior. However, if an individual recently has had enough of a reinforcer and is satisfied the reinforcer will have less effect.

In negative reinforcement, an unpleasant event that precedes a behavior is removed when the desired behavior occurs. This procedure increases the likelihood that the desired behavior will occur. Just as there are positive reinforcers, there are the stimuli that strengthen responses that permit an organism to avoid or escape from their presence. Thus, when we perform an action that allows us to escape from a negative reinforcer that is already present or to avoid the threatened application of one, our tendency to perform this action in the future increases. Some negative reinforcers such as intense heat, extreme cold, or electric shock, exert their effects the first time they are encountered, whereas others acquire their impact through repeated association.

We see negative reinforcement in organizations and in personal life. Supervisors apply negative reinforcement when they stop criticizing employees whose poor performance has improved. By withholding the criticism, employees are more likely to repeat behaviors that enhance their performance. Negative reinforcement also occurs when parents give in to their children’s tantrums- especially in public places, such as restaurants and shopping malls. Over time, the parent’s tendency to give in may increase, because doing so stops screaming.

Thus, both positive and negative reinforcement are procedures that strengthen or increase behavior. Positive reinforcement strengthens and increase behavior by the presentation of desirable consequences. Negative reinforcement strengthens and increases behavior by the threat of and the use of an undesirable consequence or the termination or withdrawal of an undesirable consequence.

Negative reinforcement is sometimes confused with punishment, because both use unpleasant stimuli to influence behavior. However, negative reinforcement is used to increase the frequency of a desired behavior, where as punishment is used to decrease the frequency of an undesired behavior.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Reinforcement, positive or negative, needs to be properly scheduled. Schedules of reinforcement determine when reinforcers  are applied. Psychologists have identified several different schedules of reinforcement. When reinforcement is administered uninterruptedly, it is called continuous reinforcement. Instead, in organizations, reinforcers are administered following partial reinforcement schedules. Four varieties of partial reinforcement schedules have great relevance to organizations. They are

  • Fixed interval schedule: It means providing reinforcement on a predetermined, constant schedule. The first desired behavior to occur after the interval has elapsed is reinforced. Eg: monthly pay cheque.
  • Variable interval schedule: It also uses time as the basis for applying reinforcement, but it varies the intervals between reinforcements.
  • Fixed ratio schedule: Reinforcement is administered after the desired behaviors occur a specified number of times. Eg: Piece rating.
  • Variable ratio schedule: In this a certain number of desired behaviors must occur before the reinforcer is delivered, but the number of behaviors varies around some average. This type of reinforcement schedule provokes most interest and is preferred by employees for some tasks. It tends to be the most powerful of all the reinforcement schedules. Slot machines and a number of gambling devices operate on a variable ratio schedule. Most of the time when people put a coin into the slot they lose. But, after some unknown number of plays, the machine will payoff.

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