Operant Conditioning

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

Learning involves a “change in the content or organization of long term memory and/or behavior.” As a child, our teachers understood that our brains needed to be wired, or in some cases rewired, to learn a specific piece of information or skill. These are things that we either know or do as a result of specific types of conditioning.


Pavlov’s famous work with dogs is known as classical conditioning. This is where he discovered that when dogs were fed, they salivated. He went on to discover that when a bell was rung before the dogs were fed, the dogs would salivate in anticipation of being fed. As he further discovered, once he paired the bell with the food enough times, he no longer needed the food. He could just ring the bell and the dogs would begin salivating! This is a process where an unconditioned stimulus (food) that caused an unconditioned response (salivating) could be paired with a conditioned stimulus (bell) to eventually produce a conditioned response (salivating when the bell is rung).


This type of classical conditioning is not unlike what is done in advertisement: A beautiful woman is desirable to a man. The beautiful woman is then paired with a new car. The new car is then desirable to the man. (I admit we are simple creatures sometimes).


In our world of winning leadership, classical conditioning (pairing beautiful women or men with desired behaviors) may not be the most effective way to close Knowledge Gaps and teach new behavioral expectations to our team. Winning leaders instead use something called Operant Conditioning. This is where we use positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or punishment to affect our team’s behaviors.


Positive reinforcement means that when an expected behavior takes place, we reward the associate. Punishment means that when an expected behavior takes place, we apply a punishing consequence (typically some level of counseling) with the associate. Negative reinforcement (not the same thing as punishment, by the way) is when the stimulus is negative in nature, like an obnoxious door to door salesman who you buy something from because of his pressure tactics.


Winning leaders understand the power of each and apply punishment and negative reinforcement sparingly but use the power of positive reinforcement repeatedly and strategically. They also know that additional power comes from the timing of when the reinforcement occurs. When a specific behavioral expectation is met, they immediately recognize and reward the associate. They know that the closer in time that the consequences for the behavior occur; the more likely they are to influence future behavior. The same thing is true for punishment (counseling). The closer in time that the counseling for poor performance occurs, the more effectively it will influence future performance.


An amazing thing that also happens within a team structure is something called vicarious learning. This is when learning occurs for an associate who is not directly going through the learning process. He or she learns by observing one of their teammates and the behavioral reinforcement for that associate’s actions. This is why winning leaders ensure that all positive reinforcement is publicly displayed and celebrated in a culture of winning. Standing ovations are common place. Result score carding is a daily routine. High fives and personal “Thank you’s” are expected.  They know that the power of positive recognition is contagious and will affect the future behaviors of the rest of the team.  Specific punishment behaviors (counseling) for unmet expectations are quickly, yet privately administered.


Winning leaders don’t assume learning is going to take place. They are intentional about it. They know that in order to ensure Knowledge Gaps are securely closed, learning needs to take place. Both knowledge and skills must be grown through the power of Operant Conditioning. Positive and negative consequences must be administered with precision and speed.


Through these behaviors and adult learning techniques, winning leaders close Knowledge Gaps with strength. Their teams know specifically which behaviors are expected and which are not. There is no doubt in a winning environment.


With Operant Conditioning, and its system of specific and powerful coaching, counseling and recognition, associates consistently win.


Consistent winning…Now, the thought of that is enough to make any leader salivate!


Have an amazing week!


Brian

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