Management Styles: Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive and negative reinforcement are common, often complementary tools used by managers to motivate workers. A positive reinforcement is a reward or incentive offered to an employee for meeting certain performance standards. A negative reinforcement is the use of a consequence, such as lost pay or a demotion, to discourage an employee from underperforming or behaving offensively or unethically.

Positive Basics

  1. Positive reinforcement includes verbal or written praising, informal or formal awards and pay structures that offer commission, bonuses, raises and promotional opportunities to high performers. Positive reinforcement motivates employees to meet a particular level of expectation. Routine use of this management style helps establish a positive work environment and maintain high employee morale. It also motivates employees to optimize work performance based on the belief that the effort put into work leads to positive outcomes for the company and the employee.


  1. Overuse of positive reinforcement can cause employees to underperform in some instances. For instance, a manager who rewards a sales employee heavily for barely reaching a $10,000 quota in a given month may create a psychological belief by the employee that this is his highest level of expectation. Progressive goal-setting can help overcome this concern. Also, other employees may become envious when seeing colleagues get praise and rewards much more consistently. In team environments, balancing rewards for individual performance and team achievements is a primary concern.

Negative Basics

  1. Negative reinforcement has its place in good management as well. Cutting hours of a part-time employee, reprimanding an employee verbally or through formal documentation, demotion and termination are all example of negative consequences used to promote good performance. Clearly communicating expectations and negative consequences of poor decisions and behaviors up front is integral to an effective management style. Company policy manuals and conduct codes, for instance, usually identify standards of acceptable behavior and discipline processes if they aren't met. The point is to discourage employees from undesirable outcomes and toward positive rewards. Negative reinforcement coupled with rewards for positive behaviors creates a good balance.


  1. Concerns about negative reinforcement often refer to extreme use. Over-reliance on negative reinforcement, including punishments with no intent to correct behavior, leads to a low morale workplace characterized by anxiety and fear. Some managers overuse threats as a way to drive employees to perform up to par. While this may lead to short-term production, it rarely contributes to strong, long-term success. Public criticism or communication of negative reinforcements to an employee demeans and demotivates that employee as well as his co-workers. Demotions and termination also could lead to discrimination lawsuits and unlawful termination allegations if the company doesn't document the poor performance well and terminates without just cause.