Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Grab the right key to the right door

Imagine that you are assigned to be the manager of a new team with unsupportive and lazy employees. What can you do to motivate them to work harder and re-build a better image for your team? In order to tackle this problem, you have to think about ways to change their behaviours: make them to work more and reduce their laziness.

In fact, the key to this chaotic situation is simple: control employees with the appropriate use of reinforcement and punishment. There are two types of reinforcement: Positive reinforcement means that the action is more likely to occur when it is followed by a favourable outcome; Negative reinforcement means that the action is more likely to be avoided or removed with the repetitive occurrence of the negative outcome (Beyer & Trice, 1984). While for punishment, it can reduce undesirable behaviour by providing unfavourable consequence (Arvey & Ivancevich, 1980). According to O-Reilly & Puffer (1989), employees are more satisfied when the supervisors are competent enough to use appropriate rewards and punishment in managing them, and hence a more cohesive working environment will be created. So, how can the theories be applied to this situation?

Managers tend to reward good performance and punish bad performance. According to O’Reilly and Weitz (1980), the use of informal or formal warnings and discharges was positively related to subjects’ performance with the reduction of undesirable behaviour. Taking this into considerations, managers can combat laziness (bad performance) by expressions of disapproval or apply cost for certain undesirable behaviour (punishment). That means, when an employee is late for work, the manager can verbally criticise (informal warning) them or provide them warning letters (formal warning). Also, managers can require employees to extend the working hour when they are late for work (response cost).  

On the other hand, managers can reward behaviours that they want to be repeated. They can acknowledge and praise the employee in front of the co-workers for the extra workload and excellent work. Apart from gaining complement from the manager that motivates the employee, co-workers who witness the complement will be impacted as well. Regarding social learning theory, the witnessed co-workers may set the complemented behaviour (extra workload and excellent work) as the model for evaluation on own performance (Rakestraw & Weiss, 1981). They may therefore work harder to achieve the standard and in turn raise the morale among the employees. Likewise, managers can set up bonus system as for financial rewards and fill in good reports for employees’ promotion use. 

However, one thing to be noted is that reinforcements and punishments should be used with correct manner. The rewards or punishments should be followed by the behaviour consistently and immediately in order to maximise its effectiveness and minimise confusion. Otherwise, respondents may be unable to learn the association between the behaviour and respective rewards or punishments.
All in all, being a successful manager in leading a team and creating a cohesive working environment is not as difficult as you thought. It is simply about applying the appropriate methods in changing and controlling behaviours- grab the right key to the corresponding door.

Ching Yiu Ng


Arvey, R. D. & Ivancevich, J. A. (1980). Punishment in Organisations: A Review, Propositions, and Research Suggestions. The Academy of Management Review, 5, 123-132.

Beyer, J. M. & Trice, H. M. (1984). A Field Study of the Use and Perceived Effects of Discipline in Controlling Work Performance. The Academy of Management Journal, 27, 743-764.

O’Reilly, C. A. & Puffer, S. M. (1989). The Impact of Rewards and Punishments in a Social Context: A Laboratory and Field Experiment. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 62, 41-53.

O’Reilly, C. A. & Weitz, B. A. (1980). Managing Marginal Employees: The Use of Warnings and Dimissals. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25, 467-484.

Rakestraw, T. & Weiss, H. (1981). The Interaction of Social Influences and Task Experiences on Goals, Performance, and Performance Satisfaction. Organisational Behaviour and Human Performance, 27, 326-344.

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