Positive reinforcement involves rewarding an individual for a positive behavior. For example, you give your employees bonuses for winning bidding projects. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, entails rewarding an individual for removing undesirable consequences. For instance, you give your employees a free lunch every Friday if they significantly reduce waste. Both positive and negative reinforcement behaviors have ethical implications, such as in terms of how reinforcement is perceived - - and sometimes misinterpreted.

Behavior Modification as Manipulation

One ethical issue is that both negative and positive reinforcement may be perceived as manipulation, since they lead to modifying someone else’s behavior. Sometimes, this criticism can be fair. To avoid manipulation, you will need to explain openly the reasons for your behavior and the intended results. The employee then will more likely appreciate that both types of reinforcement are applied for his benefit - - his modified behavior will help him progress not only professionally, but also personally.

Positive Reinforcement as Condescension

The manager using inappropriately positive reinforcement may be considered condescending. A “Good job!” pat on shoulder may sometimes be enough to encourage your subordinate, but - - if used too often and/or without further explanation - - your employee may start wondering, “Isn’t that what I’m paid for? To do a good job?” As a manager, you should give constructive feedback, explaining why you praise your employee and helping him learn from the experience.

Negative Reinforcement as Punishment

Although specialized literature clearly distinguishes between negative reinforcement and punishment, many people still perceive the two terms as equivalent. While reinforcement, whether negative or positive, aims at increasing the likelihood that a desired behavior will be repeated, punishment intents to decrease an intolerable behavior. For example, working overtime to reach a deadline is not punishment, while working late because you constantly talked on your phone instead of doing your job is.

Reinforcement as Intrinsic Motivation

If applied correctly, both negative and positive reinforcement can activate intrinsic motivation. The best reward for you, as a manager, is when your assistants target a desirable behavior as much as you do; in this case, reinforcement will be a collaborative effort, where both you and them will find the best way to repeat a desired behavior or remove an unwanted one. Such reinforcement will also trigger employees' empowerment and more productive results.