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.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Manipulate to Motivate

When we were 6 years old and asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’, I am fairly certain I never said I wanted to pursue a career in Human Resource Management. For those of you who need a little clarification on the job description, working in human resources may require you to manage the “talent” in the workplace. This includes recruiting and rewarding employees for an organisation.

Positive reinforcement can be used in the office to increase the frequency of desirable behaviour, such as commitment, communication, teamwork skills, etc. This can be done by rewarding the individual when the desired behaviour occurs - I don’t mean give them a pat on the back or a chocolate bar - but let the individual know that they did well for that certain behaviour, i.e. give them positive feedback. Deci (1971) found positive feedback enhanced intrinsic motivation. When rewards are administered closely to the desired behaviour, there is an increased likelihood that the behaviour would occur again; however, when rewards are terminated, the likelihood of the behaviour occurring would return to baseline levels (Skinner, 1953). This finding led to the use of rewards as a motivational strategy, and behaviour-change programs in applied settings (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). Therefore, rewarding individuals consistently for specific desired behaviours can increase the likelihood of that behaviour occurring, thereby improving an organisation’s productivity. 

On the other hand, there are undesirable behaviours that must be dealt with appropriately to ensure the productivity, motivation and satisfaction of the work force are unaffected (McCarthy et al., 1995). Often managers in an organisation can display typical bullying behaviours, such as sarcasm, threats and verbal abuse; these behaviours can degrade the health and well-being of those who experience them (McCarthy et al., 1995). Most of you might be familiar with this type of behaviour in films, for example, in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ - Meryl Streep did not play the role of the joke-y, fun-loving boss, but was portrayed as feared and powerful in the office. Furthermore, inappropriate managerial behaviour can lead to frustration and anti-social behaviour at work (Spector, 1997). 

What can be done to reduce this unwanted behaviour and foster a supportive workplace? We want to reduce the frequency of these managers’ behaviours, and this can be done by “punishing” the behaviour (not the person!). Reprimanding, which means providing expressions of disproval in the form of corrective feedback, can be used to address the managers’ inappropriate behaviour. Furthermore, Baumhart (1961) surveyed over 1,700 business personnel and found that managers were not in agreement as to what constituted unethical behaviour in the workplace. Therefore, reprimanding the manager should include feedback on the culture of the organisation, along with the organisation’s perceptions of what is ethical and unethical behaviour - which will lead to increased satisfaction and motivation (less frustrated) employees. 

Applied behaviour analysis can be used in various occupational settings to increase and decrease the frequency of behaviours to ensure the environment fits in with the organisation’s culture, and to increase levels of satisfaction and motivation among the workforce.

Simran Vaswani


Baumhart, R. (1961). How ethical are businessmen? Harvard Business Review, 39, 16-19.

Deci, E. L. (1971) Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological bulletin, 125, 627-668.

McCarthy, P., Sheehan, M., & Kearns, D. (1995). Managerial styles and their effects on employees health and well-being in organisations undergoing restructuring. Faculty of Commerce and Administration.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan. 

Spector, P. E. (1997). The role of frustration in antisocial behaviour. In R. A. Giacalone & J. Greenberg (Eds.), Antisocial behaviour in organisations. London: Sage Publications.

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