What is Reinforcement? Elements, Learning, Types of Reinforcement Schedules and Punishment

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is a process through which a certain type of behavior is strengthened in an individual. The reinforcement theory was developed by B.F. Skinner and his associates and is applied to motivate and retain employees. This theory seeks to explain behavior without relying on unobservable internal factors such as needs, thoughts, etc.

Elements of Reinforcement Theory

These four elements of reinforcement theory are explained as follows:

Positive Reinforcement

It is the positive reassurance and encouragement given to employees on exhibiting desired behavior or delivering desired results. It increases the frequency of a particular behavior in a person due to the addition of a particular stimulus.

For example, in a paper manufacturing factory, a supervisor improves a quick-return mechanism, which reduces ‘idle time’ by 30%. As a result, his/her salary increases by 35%. Needless to say, he/she, as well as his/her colleagues, would try to repeat this type of innovation because of the reward.

Negative Reinforcement

It involves encouraging good behavior among employees by removing the situation or stimulus that may lead to undesirable behavior or results. It increases the frequency of a particular behavior due to the removal of a particular stimulus.

For example, if a manager stops punishing employees for low performance, employees may increase the quality of their performance and productivity.


It involves creating circumstances that do not allow any scope for the occurrence of any undesirable behavior or result.

For example, an employee who is suspended from work for not performing his/her duty properly will take utmost care after rejoining the work, because he/she will not prefer the same treatment in the future.


It is the complete absence of reinforcements (positive and negative) for lowering the probability of occurrence of undesirable behavior of results. It seeks to decrease the frequency of the behavior by removing the consequence that reinforces it.

For example, a film director usually delivers interesting films. However, the last two films of this director have not been very absorbing. This prompts you to avoid any further films by this director in the future.

On the other hand, if the director simply stops delivering films, though you do not miss the director’s films, you still have favorable memories of the director’s work

Learning Through Reinforcement

Learning through reinforcement is one of the oldest approaches used by organizations for changing the behavior of individuals in the workplace. This is also called behavior modification.

According to behavior modification, learning is dependent on the environment. It states that the environment teaches an individual to change his/her behavior to maximize positive consequences and minimize undesirable behavior.

Behavior modification involves a procedure involving three stages, which are as follows:

Antecedents (A)

Antecedents are the events that occur before the behavior depicted by an individual. For example, the supervisor of an employee asked him/her to complete a particular task by end-of-day. In this case, the employee knows that his/her action will lead to a consequence.

Behavior (B)

Behavior is the response of the individual to the antecedent. For example, in the above example, the employee either starts performing the task given by the supervisor immediately, or he/she may have a discussion with the supervisor that the task cannot be completed by end-of-day.

Consequences (C)

In behavior modification, the consequence is the result of the response/action taken by the individual. In the example, if the employee starts working on the given task and completes it by end-of-day, the supervisor will be happy and may praise him/ her.

On the other hand, if the employee has a discussion with the supervisor, the supervisor may not be satisfied with the argument given by the employee, or the supervisor may want that the task completed by end-of-day only.

As a result, the employee may be scolded by the supervisor or he/she may form an unfavorable impression of the employee. This consequently leads to a change in the behavior of the employee. If the consequence is positive, he/ she will repeat that behavior.

However, if the behavior leads to a negative consequence, he/she will modify his/her behavior.

Organisational Reward System

Today, reward, compensation, and recognition are considered useful motivational and retention strategies followed by different organizations. Reward motivates an employee to improve his/her performance and contribution to organizational effectiveness.

Every organization requires a strategic reward system for its employees. This system should address four important areas, namely, compensation, benefits, recognition, and appreciation. The easiest way to address a reward system is to measure the performance of the employees.

Performance can be measured by initially setting goals for the employees. The standard of the outcomes of these goals can measure performance. Rewarding a specific behavior often becomes a challenge than rewarding a performance.

This is because the behavior of an employee may not be the same for everyone every time. In such a case, it is difficult for the management to justify the reward. There are various methods of evaluating performance, but the changing behavior of a worker often leads the Human Resources (HR) unit to ask, “What is the organization compensating the employees for?”

Various organizations follow different reward systems based on the performance of their employees. Certain organizations prefer to go for monetary rewards, whereas, a few prefer non-monetary rewards. While motivating an employee with incentives and rewards, it is important to answer the question:

Are you compensating employees for coming early and staying late or for coming up with new ideas for organizational effectiveness? The first part of the question indicates behavior, and the latter part indicates the actual involvement of the employee in the performance.

Benefits, appreciation, and recognition are equally important parts of a strategic reward system. An employee-reward system reflects the integrated policies of an organization, which is revealed by the desired level of performance of an employee and his/her contribution towards the organizational objectives.

A reward system executes the entire reward process in an organized way. For developing the performance of employees and for initiating an effective reward system, managers need to focus on the important aspects of rewards such as performance facilitation, performance encouragement, and value of rewards.

A reward system has the following features that help a manager to perform in his/her focused area:

  • A reward system provides a mixed element of monetary and non-monetary rewards to match the requirements of individual employees.

  • It communicates the reward at the right time to encourage employees.

  • It connects the reward with performance, which yields positive results for both organization and employees.

  • It reflects promotions and compensation to cover more responsibilities and improve performance.

  • It provides the opportunity to link appraisal with the reward system.

Administering Reinforcement

To administer reinforcement effectively, certain schedules of reinforcement are developed, because when and how reinforcement is administered is significant.

Types of Reinforcement Schedules

There are two major types of reinforcement schedules, which are explained below:

Continuous Reinforcement Schedule

In this schedule, reinforcement is continuous, that is, every time desirable behavior is demonstrated, it is encouraged or reinforced, so that the frequency of its demonstration increases. For example, chocolate for every good presentation.

Intermittent Reinforcement Schedule

In this schedule, the acceptable or desirable behavior is reinforced but not each and every time, because the amount of reinforcement given once is often enough to make the behavior worth repeating.

The figure shows the further classification of intermittent reinforcement schedules:

The different types of intermittent reinforcement schedules are discussed as follows:

Fixed Interval Schedule

When rewards are spaced at uniform or pre-fixed equal time intervals, the reinforcement schedule is called a fixed-interval reinforcement schedule. For example, students’ attendance is checked every six months, and those with full attendance are awarded certificates.

Similarly, the performance of an employee is assessed after one year in an organization and based on this performance, rewards are provided to the employee in the form of a monetary increment in salary or promotion.

In such a case, the employee will try to improve and maintain his/her performance throughout the year, so that he/she can get good rewards.

Variable Interval Schedule

If rewards are distributed in time, so that reinforcements are unpredictable, the schedule is of the variable-interval type. This helps an organization to delight its employees and help in increasing their job satisfaction level. For example, four chocolates in a year for any good performance.

Fixed-ratio Schedule

In a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule, rewards are initiated after a fixed or constant number of responses to encourage this fixed number of responses and performances.

For example, in a manufacturing organization, employees receive Rs.50 extra after producing every twelve boxes of products.

Variable-ratio Schedule

Variable-ratio Schedulen the variable-ratio schedule, a reward is provided to employees after a varying number of responses instead of a fixed number of responses. Mostly, the number of responses falls around a specific average in this schedule type.

This enables an organization to encourage its employee to high performance. For example, bonuses provided to the salespeople at a call center vary widely. The salespeople may be rewarded after two successful sale calls or might not be rewarded even after twenty successful calls.

In this case, the salespeople are unaware of how many successful sale calls they will receive the bonus, but they know that if they keep completing their sales calls successfully, they will receive the bonus. This encourages them to perform better at a steady rate.

It is believed that variable schedules tend to lead to higher performances than fixed schedules because employees are not aware of the timing of the reward. Thus, they keep performing better, because they do not want their performance to be low at the time when rewards are provided.

In contrast, variable interval schedules generate high rates of response and more stable and consistent behavior because of the high correlation between performance and reward and because of the uncertainty involved, that is, employees tend to be more alert because there is a surprise factor involved.

Types of Punishment

Punishment can be of two types:

Positive Punishment

A positive punishment presents a negative consequence of a particular behavior of an individual so that the behavior is not repeated in the future. For example, ₹ 100 is deducted from the salary of an employee, because he/she always arrives late to the office even after many reminders.

This may discourage the employee’s behavior of arriving late to the office in the future.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves the removal of a stimulus due to a particular behavior to decrease the probability of the occurrence of that behavior in the future.

For example, in the example of salary reduction, if one day’s salary of an employee is deducted due to arriving late to the office, he/she will avoid such behavior in the future.

Impact of Punishment

Punishment is given to strengthen a particular type of behavior in an individual. It tries to decrease the frequency of unwanted behavior and actions or undesirable happening.

Punishment often leads to a negative impact on employee behavior. Following are some negative responses resulting from punishment:

  • Punishment may result in undesirable emotional reactions. For example, if a worker is reprimanded because of taking leaves frequently even when the reason for leave is genuine, he/she can react angrily, leading to behavior that is detrimental to the organization.

  • Punishment can also lead to sabotage, wherein the punished employees form a group and plan to damage the organization’s property, such as machines.

  • Most of the time, punishment leads to temporary suppression of undesirable behavior instead of its complete elimination. For example, a manager punishes a team for disciplinary issues at the workplace. In this case, the team may only remain under discipline when the manager is present.

  • Punishment reduces initiative taking and the ability for flexibility in employees. This is because the self-esteem of an employee decreases when he/she is given a punishment.

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