Operant Conditioning Examples (Including Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 1, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Modifying the behaviour of an employee is one of the most challenging aspects of being a manager. Making use of operant conditioning which uses rewards or punishments to encourage or discourage behaviour is a technique a leader can use to address this issue. It's important that you understand the way to use punishments and rewards to motivate behaviour when implementing this tool in the workplace. In this article, we provide operant conditioning examples, define operant conditioning, detail its components, learn its benefits, and consider the different schedules of reinforcement.

4 operant conditioning examples

The following operant conditioning examples illustrate how this method works in a business environment and provides different ideas for managers considering this approach:

Operant conditioning with positive reinforcement

This is an example of positive reinforcement in a professional setting:

A sales manager is looking to increase the number of sales the team makes each month. At the monthly sales meeting, they discuss ways that the team can improve performance. The sales manager agrees to implement a bonus scheme to encourage the sales team to make more sales. Each team member that achieves their sales target for the month receives a bonus of $200. If a member of the sales teams achieves their sales target for three continuous months, they receive a bonus that's the equivalent of 20% on all sales they make over their sales target.

Operant conditioning with negative reinforcement

This is an example of operant conditioning with negative reinforcement in a professional setting:

The manager of the customer service team has set a team requirement that only 10% of the calls fielded by the team can exceed ten minutes. At the end of each week, the manager evaluates the calls that each team member has taken over the preceding week. If any of the team has exceeded the target of only 10% of the calls being over 10 minutes, then the manager requires that team member to meet with them daily for remediation until they go 10 days without exceeding the team goal.

Operant conditioning with positive punishment

This is an example of positive punishment in a professional setting:

One of the finance team members is responsible for entering all the accounts payable into the system by the 19th of each month to ensure that the suppliers receive their payments on time. When the manager notices that the staff member is struggling, they reallocate part of the job to another team member and instructs the employee to keep time records that they review each week. This acts as a motivator for the team member who doesn't want to have further responsibilities removed.

Operant conditioning with negative punishment

This is an example of negative punishment in a professional setting:

Typically, the manager notices that several members of the team are regularly late back from lunch. The team typically goes to an extended lunch together on the last Friday of the month, where they spend the afternoon socializing with each other. The manager puts a new rule in place that team members who are late back from lunch on more than two occasions in the preceding month cannot take part in the team lunch.

Related: What Is Employee Appreciation, and How Can You Implement It?

What are operant conditioning examples?

Operant conditioning is a psychological term that refers to behaviours an employee may adopt at work. This theory states that if a leader rewards an employee's behaviour, the subordinate may repeat their actions, while if the manager punishes a behaviour, the employee may avoid repeating it. Operant conditioning is relevant in a professional setting, where managers can use positive and negative reinforcement to promote or discourage the behaviour of different staff members.

Components of operant conditioning

There are several key components to operant conditioning, including:

Reinforcement response

Reinforcement involves words or actions that strengthen and encourage a behaviour. Usually, the reinforcement motivates the individual to increase the behaviour. In a professional setting, it results in the employee being more likely to repeat the behaviour. There are two different types of reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement: To encourage an individual to engage in a given behaviour, managers may give them a benefit that they might not normally receive. For example, to promote punctuality, an employee might receive an early finish time on a Friday if they've been arriving at the office on time.

  • Negative reinforcement: When an individual engages in a certain behaviour, their manager may reward them with the removal of a negative outcome. For example, an employee might have a deadline for finishing a report before next Monday, meaning they might work during the weekend unless they finish the project on Friday.

Punishment response

When a person displays an unwanted behaviour, they receive a punishment to discourage the behaviour in the future. For example, an employee that constantly arrives late at the office may receive a notification from their manager asking them to sign in with their supervisor each morning until their punctuality improves. There are two different types of punishment reinforcement:

  • Positive punishment: With positive punishment, a person applies a negative outcome or event when someone engages in a behaviour that is contrary to that which is acceptable.

  • Negative punishment: This refers to the removal of a benefit when an individual engages in a certain behaviour. For example, employees that fail to meet a certain number of sales in a given month lose their monthly sales bonus.

Related: What Are Intrinsic Rewards and Why Are They So Important?

Reinforcement scheduling

A reinforcement schedule details the timing of the reinforcement, with different schedules impacting the time it takes to change behaviour and the likelihood that it is a permanent change. There are five different types of reinforcement scheduling, including:

Continuous

This type of schedule allows the employer to provide reinforcement every time the behaviour is evident, which can be a catalyst for a rapid change in the employee's behaviour. The downside of this approach is the expectations that the employee may feel. This means that the employee may revert to their previous behaviour.

Fixed ratio

With a fixed ratio schedule, the employer reinforces the behaviour in a set number of instances, rather than reinforcing every instance of the behaviour. For example, an employer might receive a gift card if they receive five positive customer satisfaction scores. The fixed ratio schedule also comes with the risk that the employee reverts to their previous behaviour.

Fixed interval

When the reinforcement is on a fixed interval schedule, the employer assesses the employee's behaviour over a set period. At the conclusion of the period, the employee might receive a punishment or a reward. The timing isn't as frequent as the previous two schedules. This approach usually has moderate results both for the speed of acquiring new behaviours and the retention of those behaviours in the absence of future reinforcement.

Variable ratio

The employee receives either positive or negative reinforcement at a non-standardized rate. Free from the expectation that they can receive reinforcement at a set interval, the employee may change their behaviour permanently. To receive rewards, it's necessary for the employee to behave in the desired manner.

Variable interval

This is similar to the variable fixed schedule, but the employer provides the reinforcement intermittently. This approach has an element of randomness built into it, with the employer deciding when to provide reinforcement. As the employee doesn't know when the employer plans to administer their next assessment, the subordinate may display the desired behaviour constantly, making this schedule an effective resource for managing a team.

Related: Examples of Extrinsic Motivation (With Types and Definition)

Benefits of operant conditioning in the workplace

Managers that look to implement systems that apply operant conditioning principles are likely to have a more motivated workforce. There is a wide range of other benefits also that include:

Morale

Usually, employees are aware of the consequences, positive or negative, that can occur if their performance or attitude is sub-par. This may encourage them to avoid negative consequences or participate in those activities that lead to rewards. As a number of the rewards and punishments are at the team level, the members are more likely to work together to achieve the goal, which improves overall morale.

Equity

By instituting these practices, employees are more likely to feel that the employer is treating everyone similarly. They're likely to consider this a fair way to address issues around consistency. Considerable disharmony can be an issue where there is a perception that one team member is overstepping the rules with no consequences. By addressing these issues, the manager can create a feeling of equity among team members.

Natural learning

Operant conditioning is a natural way of learning. Rewards and punishments usually have the effect of reinforcing an employee's role and validating their actions. It can also have a positive effect on their learning and lead to recognition.

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