Skinnerian behaviorism is, in its pure form, preposterous. It proposes that the only force guiding our development, abilities, and personality … though personality is actually an unscientific mirage is the rewards and punishments we experience as infants and beyond.

In a word, conditioning.

Behaviorism ignores such obvious factors as, oh, I don’t know … that tall children who become tall teenagers are more likely to become professional basketball players than those who are genetically predisposed to a more diminutive stature.

Not that behaviorism is entirely worthless. For example:

Put a pigeon in a cage equipped with a bar. When the pigeon pecks the bar, for whatever reason, it receives a food pellet as a reward. Pigeons quickly learn to peck the bar when they’re hungry.

But if your goal is to maximize the rate of pigeon bar-pecking, set up the bar so it only delivers a food pellet after a random number of pecks. Pigeons subjected to this “variable-ratio reinforcement schedule” never lose interest. They peck the bar rapidly, repetitively, and enthusiastically until their beaks turn into lips.

Most golfers are similar – we smite the white spheroid well just often enough to bring us back to the course for another round. As applied to us humans, variable ratio reinforcement explains a lot more than golf. From video games to darts to jigsaw puzzles to birding, to writing text-handling Excel formulas, it’s the random scarcity of positive reinforcement that brings practitioners back for more.

Variable-ratio reinforcement also provides a useful lens for evaluating popular reinforcement-based methods for motivating the men and women who report to you.

Depending on which management theorist you read, you’ll come across (at least) these three popular alternatives:

Positive reinforcement: Find something to praise, because employees will do more of what gets them positive attention.

KJR analysis: This would be more convincing if humans were less like pigeons. Also, many managers who rely too heavily on positive reinforcement find themselves searching for something … anything … to praise to get the positive feedback loop started.

But when receiving praise is too easy, the praise loses its impact. Especially, too-easy praise for mediocre employees turns the best employees into eye-rollers.

Financial incentives: People do what they’re paid to do, or so goes this theory. So if an employee, after going the extra mile, receives cash money to recognize their efforts, they’ll go the extra mile whenever they’re given the opportunity.

KJR analysis: If you give an employee a bonus for today’s performance as an incentive for tomorrow’s performance, you’ll have to give employees a bonus every time they think they’ve gone another kilometer or two. If you don’t they’ll feel cheated out of money they think they’ve earned.

Also, any other employees who think they’ve also traversed eight furlongs or more will have every reason to expect a bonus of their very own, whether or not their self-assessment matches your assessment.

Hold ‘em accountable: Set your expectations. Make sure each employee understands them. If they meet them, that’s just fine. If they exceed them, the expectations you set were too low. If they don’t you make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they’d better up their game.

KJR analysis: Set clear expectations? Check. Make sure employees understand them? Check. Except for the “set” part.

Have a conversation about expectations. Listen to your employees and their perspectives about what’s reasonable as much as you explain yours.

Yes, they might go easier on themselves that you do. But by the same token, if you’ve staffed your organization with people whose perspectives aren’t worth listening to, you’ve staffed it wrong.

Also, if you never recognize strong performance when it’s given, that’s okay. You can decide to only hire people whose motivation comes from the satisfaction of a job well done.

But this does mean you’re taking no responsibility for motivating them? If even the best performance earns no praise, your criticisms (or “constructive feedback,” or whatever) are pretty much meaningless too.

Bob’s last word: What works best also explains why outstanding employees are willing to stay with hard-to-please managers: compliment top-notch performance and only top-notch performance.

It’s variable-ratio reinforcement at its best. If you’re a behaviorist, see “pigeons,” above. If you think in less arid terms, praise that’s possible but not easy is praise that has meaning and impact.

Bob’s sales pitch: This is just a sketch. For a more in-depth view of the KJR approach to motivating employees, pick up a copy of Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World. You’re looking for Chapter 6.

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I’m experiencing technical difficulties with this site. Specifically, the plug-in that drives my archives isn’t compatible with the current version of WordPress (yet), and the incompatibility mostly shows up when you try to post a Comment.

I’ll be taking the Archives down until I have them working without their interfering with anything else. As Search seems to be working right you still have an avenue into everything in the Archives.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

– Bob