Negative and Positive: Finding The Right Balance

March 27, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Okay, most of us aren’t in the habit of taking our business advice from the Andrews Sisters. (Although you could do worse.) But the lyrics of this song, courtesy of the great Johnny Mercer, get to the heart of a rather bitter controversy that is raging in performance management. To wit: Which is more effective—the positive or the negative?

There’s a lot of understandable confusion around this topic. Contrary to popular belief, feedback and reinforcement are NOT the same thing. Negative reinforcement is NOT a synonym for punishment or criticism. And positive reinforcement is NOT a synonym for cheerleading or glossing over the unpleasant truth.

In the 1930’s, psychologist B.F. Skinner pioneered studies in operant conditioning—a method of learning in which our behavior is driven by consequence, including punishment, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Here’s a slightly simplified view of how operant conditioning works:

  • Positive reinforcement encourages a behavior to happen by rewarding something. It starts with a neutral state and ends with a positive state.
  • Negative reinforcement encourages a behavior to happen by removing something. It starts with a negative state and ends with a neutral state.
  • Punishment sets a negative consequence to a behavior (or lack of behavior). It starts with a neutral state and ends with a negative state.

Here’s an example:

——-SCENARIO:   You want your nephew to say you’re his favorite uncle.
Positive Reinforcement: You tell your nephew if he says you’re his favorite uncle you will get him an ice cream cone. He tells you you’re his favorite uncle, and he gets a double scoop with sprinkles. He has been positively reinforced by the reward.
Negative Reinforcement:   You have your nephew in a headlock and tell him you will only let him go if he says you’re his favorite uncle. He does so, and you let go. He has been negatively reinforced.
Punishment:   You tell your nephew that if he doesn’t say you’re his favorite uncle you will put him into a headlock. He doesn’t, and you put him in a headlock. He has been punished, and the next time, to avoid the headlock, he may say it.


You’re after the same result, but there are many different ways of getting there. Negative reinforcement isn’t always about putting someone in a headlock, either. Sometimes negative feedback is the right choice when you see a way to make employees’ lives easier. One example might be allowing employees to wear headphones to block out noise from loud coworkers, or allowing them to work from home on a Friday to avoid a tough commute. That’s a negative reinforcement because you are moving them from a painful state (loud noise or traffic) to a neutral one, which also acts as a sort of reward.

Which is most effective? Well, from Skinner’s studies on, research has shown that positive reinforcement is overall most effective. People just respond better to reward. A 2009 Harvard University and the Stockholm School of Economics study, published in the journal Science, investigated the benefits of a reward-based strategy toward building relationships that benefit the common good, and found that rewards were strongly associated with compliance and cooperation.  “Rewards can change individuals’ behavior and encourage cooperation without the destructive negative consequences that come with punishment,” said lead author David G. Rand.

Negative and positive feedback are different than reinforcement. (Feedback is usually what people mean when they argue about what is most effective.) In the workplace, feedback is communication to someone that is designed to provoke a particular future behavior.

Positive feedback is about picking out what has been done right and encouraging it. Negative feedback is about picking out what has been done wrong and discouraging it. Like so:

——-SCENARIO:   Kevin O. is your analytics guy. He’s very competent, but is known for alienating many of his peers with his snarky attitude. It doesn’t rise to the level of reprimand, but needs to be addressed.
Positive Feedback: “Kevin, I’d like to see you develop more strong, positive relationships within our group like the excellent one you have with Anne Marie.”
Negative Feedback:   “Kevin, you have to stop being such a jerk to people. No one wants to sit near you, except Anne Marie. Please correct this.”


As for effectiveness, here again, research has shown that more positive feedback yields better long term results. In fact, the ratio of positive to negative feedback for maximum effectiveness is 5:1. Which means that there is a place for negative feedback, but it should be used judiciously. What it really comes down to, is what you’re trying to accomplish. Here are some quick guidelines:

  • Positive feedback is better for: Encouraging new behavior or the continuation of great existing behavior. Aligning people with business goals and values. Think of it like long-term physical therapy. It should be given consistently and regularly.
  • Negative feedback is better for:  Immediately and clearly correcting someone’s course when they are behaving in an acute and unacceptable manner. Think of this like a life-saving surgery. It should be given immediately and as seldom as possible.

Recognition falls firmly into the camp of positive feedback AND positive reinforcement—which makes it doubly effective. Nominating someone for recognition is a way of noticing and highlighting great behavior that aligns with company goals, and encouraging a repeat of that behavior. It does that in both ways: by reinforcing via offering a tangible employee reward and by giving feedback via offering a message that applauds the behavior and encourages repetition.

The take away? Positive feedback and reinforcement are always effective, but good management will employ negative reinforcement when circumstances are right, and negative feedback when it becomes necessary. When made immediate, relevant and frequent, employee recognition is potentially the most powerful operant conditioning tool in your repertoire. Use it to accentuate the positive and see for yourself.