The Positive Runs Out

This afternoon, I recorded a webinar on employee motivation techniques. During the webinar, I discussed a model of human behavior that helps to explain why people do what they do. The main learning point from this model is that people generally do what they do because of what they expect to happen after they do it.

After the webinar, I was speaking with my friend and colleague Kevin Eikenberry. We discussed the webinar, and, as we spoke, I remembered an event from a training class I lead on this topic one time. During the training class, I made the point that only positive reinforcements encourage people to give high-level, maximum effort.

A class participant challenged me on this point, and our conversation went something like this:

Participant: “Are you saying that I have to keep giving people positive reinforcement for their workplace behaviors?”

Me: “Yes, that’s exactly my point.”

Participant: “Why don’t they just do what they’re supposed to do. I told them they were doing a good job once. I shouldn’t have to keep telling them.”

Me: “Well, you’re probably right about that. Is it ok if I ask you a question?”

Participant: “Sure.”

Me: “Do you have to keep paying people for them to keep coming back to work?”

Participant: “Of course I do.”

Me: “Well, you paid them once. Why do you have to keep paying them?”

Participant: “You’re kidding, right? I have to keep paying them because the money eventually runs out. If I stop paying them, they’ll go somewhere else.”

Me: “It’s exactly the same thing with reinforcements and high-level performance. If you stop giving encouragement, praise, and other positive input to people; eventually the positive runs out.”


  1. Nicole says

    I agree with the participant. If you pay them, that is their praise. If they do a bad job they should get demoted or pay docked and vise versa, if they do good they keep getting their paycheck and have a job. If they do exceptional, they may get promoted, earn more money or bonus and keep the pay checks coming. What has happened to this society? Kids that have no manners, respect, morals or responsibility to adults that need their hand held just to get an honest days work out of them?? Wake up and grow up people!!

    • says

      Hi Nicole,

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I can appreciate your perspective.

      I take it from your comment that the message I communicated to you was that people should only be rewarded and not held accountable for their actions. If that’s what it sounds like I mean, then I didn’t state my position very clearly.

      I think that it is important to distinguish between the bare minimum performance necessary to keep the paycheck and the encouragement and recognition we should give as leaders and parents when people go above the bare minimum.

      I am definitely not an advocate of willy-nilly, feel-good comments. I am an advocate of letting people know that they did a good job, and the survey data I have seen indicates that the vast majority of people will not stay engaged if they are not personally recognized in ways other than through their paycheck.

      If the paycheck is the only reason people show up, a high number of people will do just enough to keep the paycheck. What I’m trying to do is inspire high-level rather than “just enough” behavior.

      If your approach to working with people works for you in your situation, I am happy for you. I just haven’t found the approach to work with that many people. To paraphrase the words of James Madison, I chose to take human nature as I find it rather than try to change it.

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