Optimizing Employees; Skinner Style



Austin Walk





Unlike Gandhi, or Bill Murray, the name B.F. Skinner isn’t a household name, per say. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume most have no clue who he was, or what he thought. However, this pioneering psychologist of a man was a behavioral genius. One of the most influential gems Skinner brought the world of psychology, especially behavioral psychology, is the development of the doctrine of operant conditioning.

Essentially, operant conditioning states that any behavior can be increased with reward, and decreased with punishment; or lack of reward. Unlike the famous Pavlov and his drooling dogs (classical conditioning), operant conditioning focuses on natural, initially spontaneous behaviors. For example, a toddler learning to walk, and who responds to social praise and affection, will continually attempt to stand and take steps because of the immediate bombardment of hugs and kisses by his or her parents. Contrast that with a toddler who touches a hot stovetop, immediately punished with a burned hand. The reward of hugs and kisses from mom and dad will increase the walking behavior, whereas the punishment of getting burned will decrease the behavior of touching a hot stovetop.

One of my favorite Skinner stories is told by a colleague of Skinner, a professor Rogers, and takes place at large medical conference where a certain psychiatrist (Dr. X), who was openly opposed to Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, was presenting in front of a small group. During the psychiatrist’s presentation, Skinner noticed a chopping motion Dr. X was occasionally making with his arm. Skinner then passed a note to a friend which read, “Watch Dr. X’s left hand; I’m going to shape a chopping response.” Skinner then proceeded to watch Dr. X from the corner of his eye while looking down. Any time Dr. X made a chopping motion, Skinner would immediately look up, smiling in approval as if he was agreeing with what was being said. When the chopping motion stopped, down his glance would go until Dr. X’s chopping arm returned. After 5 minutes of this, Dr. X’s chopping behavior was so constant, his wrist watch slipped off! So, why? Why did this work? And how does this apply to employee productivity?

Dr. X – whether he wants to admit it or not – was positively reinforced by approval from Skinner. It motivated him, either consciously or unconsciously, to continue whatever behavior preceded the reward. He learned that as his chopping behavior increased, his reward increased. The problem with employee motivation and productivity in today’s workplace is usually one of three things.

1. It’s not happening.

2. If it is happening, it’s generally too complicated.

3. If it is happening, and it is simple, the rewards are not truly motivating.

Remember, Dr. X’s behavior didn’t increase with gold points, or Maui trips, it increased with social approval. That isn’t to say that gold points or a maui trip wouldn’t have increased his chopping behavior (I’m sure it would), however, the brilliance of this story is that the reward was unique to Dr. X.

Similarly, when trying to motivate employees (which will directly increase productivity) it’s pivotal to not only reward employees, but be creative with reward options. What rewards (i.e. “motivates”) one employee may not necessarily reward another. Providing employees the opportunity to suggest what they can earn is a powerful, simple tool. Recently in the Simple Science offices, a list circulated through the team with any “snack requests” for the newly organized snack bar. As I got to pick snacks I love, I’ve found myself setting quick two minute snack breaks, which I reward myself with once I finish a large task. I soon realised, that I’m getting things done faster, and especially fast when there is one of my favorite peanut butter bars waiting for me.

This my friends, is operant conditioning. It’s used to train animals. It’s used in parenting. It was used by the New York Times writer, Amy Sutherland, as she writes about improving her marriage. So why not implement it in the workplace? Here is a simple suggestion. First, ask your team what motivates them. Then, reward your team members, or allow them to reward themselves, when they perform any behavior you would like to increase. At Simple Science, we specialise in employee incentives and motivation. Having created simple and effective employee recognition platforms for large corporate clients leaves us more than capable and willing to help you motivate your team. Whether it’s a full blown employee reward program, or a strategy session to help you implement your own, don’t hesitate to utilize our expertise.