Smart small business owners encourage the types of behaviors that make their employees good contributors. Simply asking your workforce to perform certain actions might be enough to secure minimal compliance, but developing more complex behaviors -- such as a healthy work ethic and a willingness to be proactive -- requires a more nuanced management style.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement occurs after you reward good behavior. For example, suppose your employees work overtime to meet a project deadline. The next day, you announce a small bonus to thank them for exceeding their responsibilities. The employees’ pleasure upon hearing they will receive a bonus becomes associated with the behavior that led to the reward. The effect is a greater willingness in the future to work overtime or, more generally, to work hard and exceed expectations.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves removing a negative stimulus to encourage a behavior. For example, employees will work hard during normal business hours if they know failing to complete a project will cause you to require overtime. The good behavior, hard work, is reinforced when you remove the negative stimulus: working overtime. Like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement strengthens the development of the target behavior.


Punishment is not a form of negative reinforcement, contrary to popular belief. Punishment entails introducing a negative stimulus to decrease the occurrence of an undesirable behavior. For example, if you catch an employee using company time to make personal phone calls, you might require that person to work late to make up for the lost time. In this case, overtime is a negative stimulus you use to decrease the occurrence of a bad behavior.


Your management style can incorporate each style of reinforcement. However, modern organization theories generally recommend a focus on positive reinforcement, which encourages employee development and empowerment by fostering innovative and proactive behavior. In contrast, management styles that focus on negative reinforcement tend to be authoritarian because supervisors must confirm compliance before removing negative stimuli, which requires heavy control and surveillance, according to the book “Organizational Theory -- A Practical Approach,” by Henriette Bjerreskov Dinitzen and Hans Reitzels Forlag.