Which is More Effective in the Workplace: Positive or Negative Reinforcement

Does deterrence really work and do you always work your best when it’s required? The debate between positive and negative reinforcement in the workplace is interesting and tends to revert to personal beliefs and subjective biases, as opposed to actual science.

Research has pointed out that deterrence actually does very little to prevent crime in society. Would you steal to feed your family? Would you rob if you knew you wouldn’t get caught? Studies have also demonstrated that punishing children doesn’t work to deter bad behaviour either.

So then why do we rely so much on punishment in law and order and social relationship? Well, there has to be consequences for our actions, right? Again this speaks more to moral belief then it does science and psychology.

Does this mean that by hugging our children and giving everyone compliments the world will suddenly spin less solemnly? This drives at the main point of the issue. There are instances where both negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement should be used.

Ask anyone getting into their first managerial role and they’ll tell you the hardest part of the job is managing people. Every personality is different and the best managers are able to empathize and read people to readily understand their strengths/weaknesses, as well as who is a proper fit for their organization.

Positive reinforcement may be easier, but there are instances where both should be used. Understanding the difference between the two and how to leverage each in a particular situation will make you a better manager, parent, and friend.

Understanding the Differences

The idea of positive and negative reinforcement can be attributed to the practices of operant conditioning postulated by B.F. Skinner. Through a set of experiments, he was able to demonstrate how rats could navigate through a series of levers to find the one that would give them food each time. He also conducted experiments to demonstrate how animals would reduce the frequency of a certain behaviour if associated with negative consequences.

Therein lies the fundamental difference of both approaches. Positive reinforcement seeks to increase the frequency of a positive action, while negative reinforcement seeks to reduce the frequency of a negative reaction.

This is all fairly simple, but many people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. While negative reinforcement seeks to reduce a behaviour through negative consequences, punishment is more arbitrary and only suppresses a behaviour for the time until a person knows that they can get away with their actions again. It’s more of a form of moral retribution rather than actual conditioning.

For example, negative reinforcement could take the form critiquing poor work and reinforcing this critique until it is completed correctly. If you’re typing up an expense report, your boss may make you rewrite it over and over again until it is correct. Punishment on the other hand, would be your boss docking you vacation days for filling out a report incorrectly. Of course, there are different degrees of punishment.

So which one is better and in what situations should we use reinforcement and punishment? The key is in finding a ratio and maintaining consistency.

Finding a Ratio

Research by academics Emily Heaphy and Marcial Losada examined 60 business leadership teams and their performance at an information-processing company. Essentially, the teams were rated by a set of factors, such as customer satisfaction ratings and financial data, to determine performance. What they found was that the highest performing teams held a positive-to-negative feedback ratio of 5.6, or 5.6 compliments for every negative one. The lowest performing teams held a ratio of 0.36 or 3 negative comments for every positive one.

While the study was by no means perfect, it has reinforced a long held belief among psychologists that the ideal praise-to-negative feedback ratio for workforce performance should be six compliments for every criticism.

This demonstrates the importance of positive feedback to give employees encouragement. This encouragement comes in the form of risk taking and assuming leadership on projects to improve output.

For businesses, positive feedback could assume the form of praise or even perks. There are effective tactics to improve employee motivation and it requires you to understand each employee to gain the most out of them.

Now, it should be mentioned that negative feedback can be instrumental in getting the most out of your employees as well. Constructive criticism and setting the right expectations will help your employees to perform their best and avoid future mistakes. Understanding which situations to use either form of feedback depends on context and the employee. Just understand that relying too heavily on one or the other as a managerial tactic will not serve anyone.


What does this all mean? Finding the right balance between negative and positive reinforcement will help you to position your employees to perform their best. From a social perspective, this is also an effective communication technique to host an honest conversation with friends and loved ones and maintain a healthy relationship. Being too negative or too positive isn’t a good way to maintain a healthy relationship and understanding which situations to use positive and negative feedback will help you so much in your personal and professional life.

This article was contributed by fellow NYU students. If you would like to make a contribution to the NYU Dispatch, please email us.

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