Spread the Love: How to Grow a Positive Company Culture

Positive reinforcement (and positive recognition) is the seemingly simple act of acknowledging and appreciating someone’s good work.

Whether that work is a £155K sale, a thoughtful restructuring of office desks, or even a much-needed “can do!” attitude, positive reinforcement highlights the contributions a person has brought to the office, whether tangible or not.

Reading this, there’s a fair chance that these words have elicited one of two responses from you, those being either: “But what real benefit does positive reinforcement provide?” or “Fantastic! I already do this, and can now get back to that YouTube video of otters holding hands.”

Luckily, we have a follow-up to both responses, so here’s why positive reinforcement deserves more of your attention.

What real benefit does positive reinforcement provide?

While establishing and enforcing repercussions for poor work is a necessary approach to eliminating unacceptable behaviour, it doesn’t encourage or reinforce the behaviours you do desire. And by placing emphasis mostly (or solely) on the errors a person makes, you could be fostering an office environment that makes work feel like a thankless task – thereby demotivating your employees and contributing to anxiety and stress during high-pressure situations. As our Head of Strategy and Content Abbie Pullman testifies, it’s important to rethink how you approach giving feedback.

Headshot of Abbie Pullman from Talent Point

“When giving feedback - whether to our colleagues or in our personal lives - it's become habit to focus on ‘areas for improvement’. Whilst this is a vital tool for continuous development, it doesn’t take much to feel constantly criticised. In the words of Ken Blanchard, a simple positive reinforcement rule that I strive to follow is to “Catch them doing something right”!

Learning something new (as most of us do throughout our working lives!), is full of uncertainty and inevitable set-backs. Confirmation that we’re doing ok and intentional focus on quality across all of our activities (rather than an unhealthy fixation on the negatives or only praising for outstanding efforts) provides the reassurance needed to keep persevering!”

The Aon 2018 Trends in Global Employee Engagement survey, which was conducted across 1000 companies employing 8 million people, revealed that rewards and recognition are the strongest driver of employee engagement – with recognition for work done ranking just after salaries and benefits as a key factor in this component.

“Cash matters in people’s lives, but it’s not all that matters,” notes Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ashley V. Whillans. “What really matters in the workplace is helping employees feel appreciated.”

Sincerely-offered praise is one of the clearest ways to communicate that you are aware and appreciative of the good work your employees do, and encourages them to continue with their efforts, if not aim even higher. Harvard Business School has also established that companies with strong recognition programs benefit from “increased productivity, lower job turnover, and greater returns on investment.”

And why is this? Because positive reinforcement applies Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which states that actions which are met with favourable responses tend to be repeated while actions that are not, often die out. An employee who goes above and beyond to deliver high-quality output may not continue to do so if their efforts are unrecognised or met with disinterest.

Fantastic! I already do this!

But what if you offer praise to your employees already? Well, while it seems like a simple enough concept (and certainly can be once you get into the groove of things), it’s important to ensure that you deliver positive reinforcement in a way that connects with and motivates employees.

This doesn’t mean creating a structured, heavily regimented means of doing so – but there are a few general rules that you should keep in mind moving forward:

1. Be Specific

While “good job!” or “great work team!” is a fine starting point, identifying the actual elements of a person’s work that you’re pleased with shows you’ve been paying attention to their efforts and communicates what aspects of their work they need to maintain at that quality.

2. Be Sincere

Detailed praise will also help convey your sincerity – which is where all your praise should come from, in case that isn’t obvious. Forced, robotic comments are not going to have the same effect as genuine gratitude, which is another reason why regimented “praise sessions” may not always be the way to go – though this can vary from office to office.

3. Be Frequent

There’s no need to wait for a monthly review to dish out any praise. Share it as soon as an employee does anything worthy of it, and remember, even small gestures contribute to the overall health of an office! We exist in a world that bombards us with thousands of stimulants on a daily basis – so kind words can’t afford to be few and far between if you want them to have any real effect.

If you’re struggling to find instances that inspire praise, evaluate why things might be slipping your notice. As our Learning & Development Manager Dan Wells notes, changing your day-to-day perspective can actually be far more work than it seems.

Photo of Daniel Wells from Talent Point

“I’ve tried to train my mind over time to see the positive in every situation. Negativity is simply a state of mind which becomes routine the more you allow it to engulf you. As a Learning and Development professional it’s critical that I don’t allow negative thoughts to infect the people I train on a day-to-day basis so it’s absolutely vital that I positively reinforce everything that my staff do – even if it’s not always quite what I was expecting!”

Be Public

While one-on-one feedback is fantastic, consider sharing praise in a public arena as well whenever possible. Frequent and public positive reinforcement will help build a culture that drives itself on mutual support – encouraging employees to do the same amongst themselves, which nurtures team spirit and cuts down on unnecessary competition.

4. Be Sensible

Avoid using superlatives or comparative comments such as “Raj is the most hard-working analyst we’ve seen…” or “out of everyone in the team, Natasha was…” as they place your employees against each other and can seem unappreciative of others’ efforts. And on a related note, if you find yourself giving the same few people the most praise – pull back! Consider why the rest of your team isn’t receiving the same positive reinforcement, and then actively work on ways to fix that.

All in all, using your words to foster a supportive, positive working environment isn’t rocket science – but it’s certainly something to be mindful about, and should definitely never be undervalued. As an employer, the health of your organisation rests on the work of your team. It’s their efforts that make every new success possible, so isn’t it time they felt that way?

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