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Social Reinforcement, pt 1: How to Encourage Others

Estimated read time:  3 – 7 minutes
Estimated read time: Attachments and sources: 50 – 73 minutes

Reinforcement is powerful principle. As humans, we’re attuned to social reinforcement. Every day events like a smile from a coworker, attention from someone you respect, or a word of support from someone you love will encourage you and reinforce behavior.

In 1968, Charles H. Madsen, Jr., and colleagues at Florida State University and University of Illinois published a paper in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. It was the first year of the journal’s publication, but interesting research was already starting to come out.


The framework

In Rule, Praise, and Ignoring: Elements of Elementary Classroom Control, the researchers set out to “determine the effects on classroom behavior of Rules, Ignoring Inappropriate Behaviors, and showing Approval for Appropriate Behavior. What they found was that structure, combined with selective attention and reinforcement of positive actions had profound effects upon behavior.

In summary, the main results indicate: (a) that Rules alone had little effect in improving classroom behavior, (b) the functional status of Ignoring Inappropriate Behavior needs further clarification, (c) the combination of Ignoring and Praising was very effective in achieving better classroom behavior, and (d) Praise for Appropriate Behaviors was probably the key teacher behavior in achieving effective classroom management.

But it’s not just children that are susceptible to these techniques. We all are, and frankly there are a lot of people out there who know this. Marketers, project managers, social activists, and political scientists all work to harness the powers of reinforcement, for good or for bad.


The good side of social reinforcement: Encouragement

Twenty five  years ago, Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner wrote a wonderful book called The Leadership Challenge wherein hey discuss “the five practices of exemplary leadership.” One of the five is practices is Encouraging the Heart. Even though others say that this is something I do often, I struggle more than I like to admit. And it is difficult to admit that.

As I have been fortunate enough to progress in my life, both personally and professionally, I’ve come to a place where I want to see other succeed and reach their potential. Additionally, I remember darker times when I pushed and worked for goals that went largely un-encouraged by those around me.

Who am I kidding… I still have those times. But inspiration often comes from within and that’s what makes the Golden Rule so powerful. Treating people as you’d want to be treated is as transformative as it is cliche.

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do. –  Mahatma Ghandi

We need not wait to see what others do. Or as Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh would say: Be true to yourself. If you follow that principle, a lot of decisions are actually pretty easy.  But that’s easier said than done. After all, how many of us trust in ourselves enough to live by the principle of internal validation?

Internal validation has a lot to do with personal self worth. We all have an internal compass: a sense of right and wrong attuned with passions and desires. And often, our passions align well with talents we’ve been blessed with and skill we’ve cultivated.

This is why Kouzes and Posner were wise to call their principle “Encouraging the Heart”. “Encouragement” and reinforcement, like that studied by Madsen and his colleagues was about getting children to behave in a way that the teachers wanted. It was a study in external influence and control. Encouraging the Heart belongs as a leadership principle because it is about helping someone else find their way.

Encouraging the Heart is about inspiring someone to find the right path, attuned with their own gifts, and helping them to express their greatest abilities.

Giving people self-confidence is by far the most important thing that I can do. Because then they will act. – Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric

If you are in a leadership position, of any kind – at home, at the office, at your church, or on your flag football team – think about how you can inspire and encourage others, not towards what you want, but towards what they want in their hearts.

Lead-in photo credit: President of the European Council


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