Positive Reinforcement for Engineers

A young manager in a major industrial company, trying to explain their reporting procedures, had trouble pronouncing the word “hierarchy.” When I did it for him after his third attempt, he was grateful – but not at all uncomfortable: “I am an engineer, you know, long words is not really my cup of tea.” Indeed, for managers with strong technical background and zero soft skills training, quite a few things crucial to their new role end up outside their cup.

One of the key concepts some of my coachees had problems with was the notion of positive reinforcement – one of the most effective motivational tools. When I mentioned positive reinforcement to a group of managers I was working with, they looked at me with a sparkle of interest: being managers, they could use “a very powerful and effective tool to help shape and change behavior” of their reports; but they were hesitant whether this would be something they could apply – or understand at all. Using more “long words” from the book – like “anything which, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again” – would have turned them off entirely.

Luckily, the uncomplicated environment we were in prompted a very effective example.

– What do you often do – and get positive, immediate, and certain results, so that you want to do it again? ….

– Have a smoke!

And my coachees started eagerly citing the reasons why the effects of smoking are definitely positive, immediate and certain, making it explicitly clear to themselves why it the positive, immediate and certain effects of nicotine make it so easy to get into the habit.

To avoid converting the few non-smokers present in the room, I asked to give me an example of something entirely opposite, i.e. negative, postponed and uncertain. To my surprise, they offered another excellent example enhancing their understanding of the concept:

– The anti-smoking campaign! It’s been ongoing for generations, and it does not really work. Why? Because it is negative (you may get sick or die), postponed (some day in the future) and uncertain (my grandma started smoking before she could walk).

Again, a lively discussion broke out. Being in itself a positive, immediate and certain outcome, the discussion reinforced the new knowledge that will now stay with my coachees forever.