In one of my classes as an undergraduate student I was required to read Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels, who is often described as the Father of Performance Management. It was part of the first organizational behavior course I ever took. I wasn't sure what to expect, but was instantly hooked by the methods he described to maximize performance. Dr. Daniels found that negative reinforcement (and punishment) can change behavior, but the most powerful way to achieve long-lasting performance improvements is through using positive reinforcement.

No matter how much business evolves, the principles of positive reinforcement will continue to stand the test of time. As organizations are beginning to go into performance review season--with the accompanying feedback process--I'm fortunate to share this guest post from Dr. Daniels on positive reinforcement:

I have been talking and writing about the astonishing power of positive reinforcement for over 40 years. However, it has become clear that most organizations have still not harnessed it. More alarmingly, many executives don't even believe positive reinforcement is beneficial to business performance. Forty years later, I still run across managers who say, "Why do we have to do this? We never used it in the past." My response is, "Haven't you noticed that the world has changed?" Businesses have changed and the way people behave has changed. What may have worked well in the past, hardly works, if at all.

There are clear differences that contrast the behaviors of traditional leaders compared to contemporary leaders who effectively use positive reinforcement to achieve improved performance:


Salim Ismail recently published a book, Exponential Organizations, in which he shows how new companies, with little cost for demand (think Internet) and little cost of supply (think Airbnb) grow at an exponential rate in contrast to traditional organizations that plan for linear growth. He points out that most of the Fortune 500 will not be around in the next 15 or so years; by the time these large companies recognize that there are threats to their business or industry, it will be too late to change their business model to stay competitive.

Despite these phenomenal growth rates, exponential companies are just like the Fortune 500 and have not figured how to maximize employee performance. With fewer employees, exponential organizations have to leverage the performance of the limited employees they do have. Traditional ways of motivating employees won't work with the new workforce (just as it doesn't work with the old workforce).

This brings me to my point. It is clear to me that positive reinforcement is an exponential force that lifts employee performance. It accelerates the rate of performance improvement, whether in a lab, in front of a computer or in a factory. In my work with clients I have experienced positive changes that no one would have expected--and at rates that in some cases were unbelievable.

For those managers who don't understand the science of behavior or how to apply it, the typical response to an urgent need for improvement in business results is to get more negative. Threats, stretch goals, demands and firings are all too common. However, when you know the science of behavior, especially how positive reinforcement works, you know that when you need rapid change, the answer lies in increasing positive reinforcement, not punishment.

When considering behavior and its effects, keep the following in mind when determining what it is you want in return. The style of reinforcement you use will determine the behavior change that ensues.


Many traditional companies will cease to exist solely because they don't understand the astonishing power of positive reinforcement and how to use it to create rapid change. Many entrepreneurial companies that don't use this power will flame out in favor of those who understand that there is a science of behavior. In the long run the application of that knowledge in their business will be as, if not more, important than the exponential technology they built.

Aubrey C. Daniels (@AubreyDaniels) is a thought leader and an internationally recognized expert on management, leadership and workplace issues who is an authority on human behavior in the workplace. Trained as a psychologist and specializing in the science of behavior analysis, Daniels has written the newly-released fifth edition of "Performance Management: Changing Behavior That Drives Organizational Effectiveness" and five other business books. As the founder of workplace consulting firm Aubrey Daniels International, he and his staff help organizations employ the timeless principles of behavioral science to re-energize the workplace, optimize performance and achieve lasting results.