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5 Jan 2012

Positive-Negative Reinforcements: Pluses and Minuses

It’s generally easier to understand what positive and negative reinforcements are than it is to understand their advantages and disadvantages. Trade offs exist. Generally, in terms of getting action positive reinforcements are better over the long run, negative over the short run. The table below explains:






  • Good long-term outcomes
  • Inspired behavior
  • Outcomes exceed expectations
  • Few legal problems
  • Opens communication
  • Increases leader’s influence
  • More effort over short run
  • Immediate results more difficult
  • Follow up very necessary
  • Better managers and training required
  • More costly over short run


  • Lower effort over short run
  • Immediate results
  • Less follow up required
  • Less managerial talent and training required
  • Attention getter
  • Less costly over the short-run
  • Compliant behavior
  • More legal implications
  • Discourages communication
  • Outcomes meet or below expectations over long run
  • Decreases leader’s influence


Positive and negative reinforcements both motive but with trade offs.

Now, it’s important for us to understand and appreciate how these work together. After all, managers are likely to use both, not just one or the other. Therefore, here are two important ratios to remember:

Results Ratio: It generally takes five (5) positive reinforcements to do the work of one (1) negative one.


Relationship Ratio: It generally takes ten (10) positive reinforcements to overcome the negative feelings of one (1) negative one.


For instance, one could hold a gun to someone’s head and change his behavior very quickly, but the relational damage is immense. We don’t want to become overdrawn on our relational accounts because overreliance on negative reinforcements will reduce the effect of positive reinforcements. This will necessitate greater use of negative reinforcements and produce a synergistic spiral downward resulting in a compliant, uninspired workforce.


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