Business leaders universally agree that employee motivation is crucial to a successful venture. A happy employee will deliver better results than a disgruntled one. Reinforcement Theory can help in this area.

It’s important to make sure your employees are challenged and goal-driven. The workforce being over-comfortable can be the enemy of success as much as unhappiness. Managers need to achieve a delicate balance where employees not only feel satisfied, confident and goal-driven but are also wary of failure and are never complacent.

You can learn how to achieve this balance with an employee motivation training course for managers. A good course will look at various psychological theories of motivation and how you can apply them in a workplace setting. One of these theories is Reinforcement Theory. Let’s explore it.

What Is Reinforcement Theory?

American psychologist and behaviourist B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is the brain behind Reinforcement Theory. His work built on the idea that behaviour is always influenced by its expected consequences. Reinforcement Theory is the concept that behaviour can be shaped by designing and controlling the consequences of the behaviour.

According to Skinner’s theory, there are four possible ways to influence behaviour: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.

Positive reinforcement

This occurs when there is a positive consequence linked to the desired behaviour. In other words, you should provide rewards to encourage certain actions. Everyday examples of positive reinforcement are when a teacher tells a student they’ve done a great job or when a parent treats their child to ice cream because they’ve kept their room tidy for a whole month.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the idea that a negative consequence can be avoided as long as an action is taken. A person’s behaviour is influenced because they wish to avoid something happening. Examples would be using sunscreen to avoid sunburn or getting vaccinated to avoid illness.


This is when an undesired behaviour leads to a negative consequence. We are typically very familiar with the concept of punishing an unwanted action. A school may send a child to detention if they don’t hand in homework, or a parent may scold a child if they fight with a sibling, for example.


Extinction is the removal of positive reinforcement when you no longer wish or need to encourage the behaviour it was originally intended to inspire. For example, your business might be rewarding new customers with a discount code. But if you then began to struggle to fulfil orders quickly, you would then decide to remove this incentive.

How Reinforcement Theory Is Used in the Workplace: Some Practical Examples

Reinforcement Theory is put into practice in many businesses and organizations. Here are some examples of how the elements of it might be used:

  • Examples of positive reinforcement for employees: monetary rewards and bonuses, extra holidays, verbal and written praise. All these incentivize employees to work hard and do as well as possible on behalf of the company.

  • Examples of negative reinforcement: a manager might provide verbal reminders or schedule meetings if a target is in danger of not being met. Their team wishes to avoid these reminders and meetings, so they work harder to meet the target. Alternatively, overtime might be expected if a deadline is not met, so employees work harder within office hours to ensure that they do not have to work evenings and weekends.

  • Punishment is usually used as a last resort in the workplace. Examples include the docking of pay or disciplinary action if an employee does not show up for work.

  • An example of extinction being used to disincentivize would be the removal of paid overtime outside of busy periods. You no longer wish to encourage longer hours because it could actually have a detrimental effect on the business at this time.

How to Use Reinforcement Theory to Motivate Employees

The successful use of Reinforcement Theory relies on a business leader selecting the most appropriate of the four methods for their team at that moment in time. In reality, a manager must balance all four behavioural conditioning methods. They need to be regularly evaluating the use of each. Are they currently working well together to reinforce the desired behaviours and discourage unwanted behaviours?

That balance is not an easy thing to get right. Your workplace changes, and employees come and go. Your marketplace and business landscape also change. You must be agile and ready for change. You must avoid bringing unnecessary stress into the workplace.

Therefore, a deeper understanding of Reinforcement Theory would benefit your organization. It is therefore recommended that you invest in employee motivation training. Here, managers can learn more about Reinforcement Theory and other theories related to motivation, their pros and cons.

Organizations that invest in training managers to motivate their team will likely have a happier, more goal-oriented workforce that is content with their work but never complacent.

  • About the Author
  • Latest Posts

Jerrin Samuel is the Executive Director at Regional Educational Institute (REI) in Abu Dhabi. Since 1995, REI has been at the forefront of education by delivering quality corporate training courses in the UAE, helping many businesses and organizations achieve greater productivity and higher customer satisfaction levels.