Positive Reinforcement works for people too!

Positive reinforcement training for animals usually entails a marker (think clicker) for the desired behavior followed by a reward (read food treat). I have written (and podcasted) a lot about positive reinforcement training in general and clicker training in particular, but it has been in the context of teaching a dog to sit, lie down, or recite the preamble to the Constitution. But, positive reinforcement works for people too, and you don’t have to have a clicker to get your boss to be nicer to you!

Ken Ramirez, the head trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, has an interesting article on clickertraining.com, titled “Positive Reinforcement with People-It’s not Hierarchical!” in which he discusses how positive reinforcement is not just for those in charge, but how we can use it to make a difference in our relationships with those who are “up the ladder” from us. At an early age he began to see how he could improve a tough situation and developed a straight forward formula for dealing with difficult authority figures:

  1. Find the things your boss finds reinforcing; this may take time and observation. Reinforcers might be: coming in under budget, timeliness, impressing his or her boss, publications, awards, public recognition, discussing the local sports team, his or her kids, etc.
  2. Look for the things your boss finds aversive or punishing; again, this may take some time and observation. Examine all of your interactions and the interactions your boss has with other staff members. Punishers might include: someone interrupting his or her lunch, silly or irrelevant questions, rambling e-mails, his or her authority being questioned, unreliability, etc.
  3. Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer
  4. Identify instances in which you can alleviate an aversive or deliver a reinforcer throughout the day.
  5. Ask yourself, “What do I have the power or ability to do, and what am I less likely to be able to do, considering my position?”
  6. Make a plan, wait for the right opportunities, and execute the plan. Don’t force it; wait to let it happen naturally.
  7. Mean it. Set out to have a genuinely open attitude, and trust that things will fall into place. If you are not sincere, your efforts to reinforce will backfire.

“Is it something I did?” (Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on UnSplash)

He goes on to address the delicate situation wherein you might be the adversive! This is a good time to look closely at how you might be adding to the tension or difficulty. He gives the example of a woman who felt her boss was a bully and she had obvious contempt for him. He asked if she showed as much contempt for him when she talked to him as she did describing the situation, and goes on to suggest: 

When a relationship is broken, both sides have the power to start over and demonstrate good will. Sadly, people’s egos get them stuck at an impasse because they can’t bring themselves to be nice to someone they dislike. It becomes a vicious cycle. If we want to see change, we have to take on the responsibility to make the first move.

The key here is to be honest about your role in the difficulties and have an open mind as to what you can do to improve the situation. Being willing to see the other person’s point of view and to have empathy for them is not always easy and requires patience as well as honesty. But, that willingness will allow you to find those moments where you can sincerely reinforce others, and as a result, feel more positive and empowered yourself. 

 

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