Building a Brand By Building a Culture of Positive Reinforcement

“All their training is based on positive reinforcement. We keep fish throughout the area and as part of our training routine, we reinforce and reward with a fish. This is how we train them to master a maneuver.“

This comment was from the trainer that trains the sea lions at Disney. I’m a big fan of certain channels such as Animal Planet, Discovery and my all time favorite, National Geographic.

This episode was centered around the trainer and how he puts these animals through their paces for the shows at Sea World. As foolproof as this positive reinforcement is, some will wash out and will not make it. However, the vast majority of them perform their routine flawlessly

Positive reinforcement is the key

Cesar Millan uses the same method on his TV show when he is called in for unruly and problem animals. One of the anecdotes from his show is that he trains people [owners] and not animals to be pack leaders

As I watched this story unfold in its simplicity, I remembered back to our cocker spaniel and how we trained him to do just about anything using the same method.

I have always used a similar approach in managing people — positive reinforcement for a job well done, and encouragement during trying times. I am here to announce that it works.

Positive reinforcement makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When given directly after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.

However, when raising kids this sometimes has the opposite effect of reinforcing bad behavior. How many times have you stood in a grocery store and seen a child act out? The parents response is to give in and let them get what they want or use the proverbial time out to no effect.

Children quickly learn that by acting out, they can gain attention from the parent or even acquire objects that they want.  Essentially, parents are actually reinforcing the misbehavior. In this case, the better solution would be to use positive reinforcement when the child is actually displaying good behavior.

Life happens in real time

Within the dynamic of manager-employee, this is a great tool to create high performers within your domain. The problem is that we wait for the end of year or “scheduled” meetings to have this action take place.

However, life happens in real time and you can’t wait a week later to have this encounter. If organizations want to build a top flight organization, timely, positive reinforcement is the missing ingredient.

There is so much information written on the pros and con of performance reviews, but if you are looking for this tool to build a high performance culture, you need to go back to square 1.

A performance culture is built on day-to-day interaction.. If you think that you are going to walk into a room once a year and have a serious discussion, you need to relinquish your manager’s badge. As the comedian Dana Carvey would say, “Not gonna do it.”

Managers need to seize the moment

In the case of the sea lions, would they perform their daily routines if they had to wait till the end of the year to be told how they did? Can you see a trainer saying, “You know back in June you did not give it your all and the performance fell flat,” or “that project you completed a few months ago was awesome.”

As comical as that may seem, that is what goes on in so many organizations today as managers do not seize the moment..

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A performance evaluation is an everyday process of interaction with your team, manager, or the organization. Getting this process right will instill in everyone that the daily interaction is the key to superior performance. This culture has to be created and can not be left to chance.

So many of the pillars of organizational superiority are going to have to be built or nurtured through this type of reinforcement. Nothing can be left to chance. When it is reinforced throughout the organization, you begin to build momentum, and reinforcement is needed for all of our processes to keep the fire alive. Otherwise, the embers will slowly burn out.

Flavors of the month

Over our careers, we have seen time and again all the fanfare that happens around a given initiative. But as time goes by, the brightness of the big launch dims, and eventually, the initiative is no longer salvageable.

When we have follow this process over a period of time, all of our succeeding initiatives simply become the next “flavor of the month.” To be successful, we need to reinforce our people as well as our initiatives.

Successful companies that zero in on a process such as employee engagement know that this is an ongoing journey. They know, and have successfully proven, that in order for it to be successful, they must use every opportunity to reinforce what is important.

Like the sea lion training, any new initiative must be reinforced each and every day.

When superior performance is ingrained

What will happen eventually is that your organization will get it and be in synch so that it becomes a part of the natural fabric. That, in turn, will begin to spread superior performance.

Championship caliber sports teams have superior performance ingrained in their entire organization. There is the sense throughout the organization that “we are good and we know we are the best at what we do.”

Once that feeling has permeated your culture, talent acquisition, retention, and market superiority become easier.

Better yet, your brand will speak for itself and everybody will want to be a part of it.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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