How to (and not to) Shape Employee Behavior Using Rewards

By Shauna Geraghty

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One of the main purposes of providing rewards to employees is to shape their behavior. The key to ensuring that rewards have the most impact on shaping the employee’s behavior is knowing what behavior to reward, when to reward it and how to reward it. Rewards that are contingent upon certain behavior are critical in shaping future behavior.

Managers can shape employee’s behavior in 4 ways [2]:

1. Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the process of strengthening a behavior (increasing its frequency) by contingently presenting something pleasurable. An example of this is an employee who works overtime due to praise and recognition from the CEO.

2. Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the process of strengthening a behavior (increasing its frequency) by contingently removing something displeasing. An example of this is a manager who stops yelling at an employee when they make a successful sale.

3. Positive punishment

Positive punishment is the process of weakening a behavior (decreasing its frequency) by contingently presenting something displeasing. An example of this is asking an employee to re-write a blog post that was submitted with an error.

4. Negative punishment

Negative punishment is the process of weakening a behavior (decreasing its frequency) by contingently removing something pleasing. An example of this is suspending a problem employee without pay.

All four ways of shaping behavior can be effective, although some are more appropriate than others. Managers seeking to shape employee’s behavior should consider ethical and legal consequences as well as the impact that shaping may have on the employee when deciding which to method to use.

10 Steps to Shaping Employee Behavior

Shaping employee behavior involves encouraging behavior that is in line with performance standards and discouraging behavior that is not in line with performance standards. It is an active process that requires managerial effort. However, when employees achieve the desired behavior, very little effort is required to maintain the behavior. It is therefore critical that managers implement the most effective plans to shape employee behavior in order to achieve maximum results.

Below are steps to help mangers successfully accomplish this:

  1. Identify and define the desired behavior
  2. Define tangible steps for employees to achieve the desired behavior
  3. Clearly explain to employees how they can achieve the desired behavior
  4. Reinforce the desired behavior (or the steps that lead to the desired behavior) as quickly as possible
  5. Redirect or correct behavior that is not on target with desired behavior as soon as possible
  6. Reinforce desired behavior with rewards that are meaningful to the employee
  7. Use a continuous reinforcement schedule until the behavior becomes a habit
  8. Use a variable reinforcement schedule for maintenance (after the behavior becomes a habit)
  9. Make all rewards contingent on performance
  10. Never stop rewarding

Following these 10 steps will ensure that behavior change occurs as rapidly as possible and the effects of the change last longer.

Works Cited:

[1] Jeffrey, S.A. (2009). Justifiability and the motivational power of tangible noncash incentives. Human Performance, 22, 143–155.
[2] Skinner, B.F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
[3] Kreitner and Kinicki. (2004). Organizational Behavior. Boston. MA: McGraw Hill, Irwin.

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Shauna Geraghty

As the first U.S. employee, Shauna helped to scale Talkdesk to over 1,000 employees in 7 offices globally. During her tenure, she has built Talkdesk's Marketing, Talent and HR functions from the ground up. Shauna has a doctorate in clinical psychology and has applied foundational knowledge from the field of psychology to help propel Talkdesk along its hyper-growth trajectory.