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Isn’t Recognizing an Employee Who’s Done Good Work an Effective Motivational Tool?

Yes. Recognizing good performance is the single most important motivation tool managers have at their disposal. It is cheap (usually free), is universally liked, and results in an increase in desired performance.

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Behind this question about motivation lurks a larger issue: How do we go about changing human behavior? Motivating a person involves getting that person to decide to do more of behavior A (e.g., coming to work on time, taking an entrepreneurial approach to her work, completing reports when they are needed) and less of behavior B (e.g., coming late, doing the minimum required, missing deadlines).

What do we know for sure about human behavior? The truth is, we know precious little. But it turns out that there is one thing that we do know for sure, one thing that is highly predictive of human behavior. It is the seven-word principle that psychologist B. F. Skinner promulgated in 1936: ‘‘Behavior is a function of its consequences.’’ Never has truth been captured more succinctly.

What Skinner meant was this: To a large extent, what people do depends on what happens to them as a result. If a person does something and the consequence is positive/rewarding/pleasant, the person will keep on doing that thing. If a person does something and discovers that the consequences are negative/punishing/distasteful, she will stop doing that thing. And if a person does something and finds out that there are no consequences—nothing at all happens—he may keep it up for a short time but eventually, to use Skinner’s fancy phrase, the behavior will be extinguished.

Although making significant changes in jobs to increase their motivational value is an important long-term effort, the decision to immediately start providing recognition of good performance anytime it’s encountered can get the motivational engine working fast. Acknowledging excellent work every time it appears is a wonderful way to start increasing motivation fast.