That’s not my brilliant, original thought, although I wish it were. That idea belongs to B.F. Skinner, who some call the father of behavioral psychology. Eighty-some-odd years ago, Skinner was a professor at Harvard, trying to crack open the mysteries of human behavior.
Much later, when I was trying to unlock the mysteries of starting up my own business, I read quite a bit on Skinner. I realized how much of his theories applied to entrepreneurship, and how much I was already practicing it from my career in football.
Skinner was most noted for his studies of the power of positive reinforcement. Skinner realized, and proved through psychological experiments, one of the most basic functions of reinforcement: It’s not so much about what happens before the behavior, but it’s what you say after that makes all the difference in the world.
The great Bud Grant, my football coach with the Minnesota Vikings, never made motivational talks before the game. He always said to me, “Well, if I have to go and motivate you before the game, and you need me to make a pep talk, then you’re in the wrong profession.” And that made sense to me.
But as I studied Skinner, what made even more sense was this: Consequences determine behavior. If we perform a certain behavior, and we get punished for it, or we get ridiculed or criticized for that behavior, we’ll probably stop doing that behavior.
But if we do something positive, if we behave or act a certain way and somebody says, “Thatta boy. Good work!” or, “Really good result. You really helped the company,” we want to hear that again. So if we hear something positive, then we’re much more likely to repeat that behavior over and over again.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t always have to be verbal, either. When I performed well on the football field, or even in practice, I rarely got an “atta boy” from someone like Bud Grant. He was a man of very few words and not at all effusive in his praise. But if all I got was a smile, or even a nod up and down as I walked off the field, you can be darn sure that it was enough to make me walk 10 feet taller and a whole lot straighter. And you can also be sure I repeated that same play as many times after in as many games as I could!
As a result of what I learned about Skinner and positive reinforcement, I now make sure that I always know what is going on in my company, whether it’s with two people, three people, four people, or 50. That way, I am always ready to jump on an opportunity to pat someone on the back or reward a great accomplishment.
And I always know what’s going on with my customers. When I see someone from my team do something that’s good for the customer and that helps our business, I always reinforce that. And I reinforce it specifically. It’s not good enough to say, “Hey everybody, great job last week. Great job today.” You’ve got to be specific. Because when people come back and say, “What is it I did that was so great?” you’ve got to have an answer.
There’s a huge difference between just saying, “Good job,” and saying the much better, “You wrote a good business plan; You made a good sale; You took care of that customer and made that customer feel good.” It’s communicating and reinforcing appropriate behavior.
Because the entire power of positive reinforcement starts from this thought: Behavior is a function of consequences. What happens after the behavior, not before, is going to determine whether that behavior, good or bad, will continue or not.
There is one caveat. If there is no consequence to behavior at all, if you don’t punish it or reinforce it, that behavior will recede. That also comes from Skinner’s studies.
So if you say to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to be positive, and I’m not going to be negative; it just is what it is and I won’t react,” that behavior will recede. And you might end up eliminating some very good behavior. So when you want that behavior to continue to accelerate, remember: It’s more important what you say after the behavior than what you say before the behavior.
Positive reinforcement after the fact will be an enormously powerful tool in your business, as well as in your life. Feedback that’s timely and specific is one of the most effective ways to build a great team around you. As a result, you’ll get your customers, your partners, and your workers to be able to do the things that you want them to do, because ultimately, they like the environment that you’ve developed for them.
This article was originally published by Business Insider