What Is Negative Reinforcement at Work? (Types and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published July 13, 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.

Many employers use salary increments, bonuses, stock options, paid trips, and other methods to encourage behaviour, motivate employees, and increase the overall output. While these positive incentive methods may be effective, negative reinforcement is another option companies use to teach and reinforce specific behaviour in certain scenarios. Learning what negative reinforcement is can help you implement the strategy effectively to get desired efficiency and output. In this article, we answer the question, "What is negative reinforcement at work?", discuss its types, review its benefits, and examine the potential disadvantages of using it in the workplace.

What is negative reinforcement at work?

Understanding the answer to, "What is negative reinforcement at work?" can help you encourage certain behaviour toward realizing company goals. Negative reinforcement is the strategy of stopping, postponing, reducing, or removing an uncomfortable aspect after a certain behaviour. By doing so, the aim is to reinforce and encourage the behaviour. By continuously engaging in negative reinforcement, the subject is likely to assume that certain behaviours have consistent effects. Over time, the target behaviour is likely to increase.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner developed the negative reinforcement psychology theory as a component of operant conditioning that involves positive reinforcement. While negative reinforcement involves removing an unpleasant aspect, positive reinforcement includes adding a motivating element to stimulate a certain behaviour. Both reinforcements are useful at the workplace in conditioning team members to respond in a certain way, depending on the consequences.

Related: Operant Conditioning Examples (Including Benefits)

3 types of negative reinforcement contingencies

Here are the three types of negative reinforcement contingencies:

1. Escape contingency

Escape contingency is the opportunity for a specific behaviour to allow someone to escape an unpleasant situation. For example, if an office building is too hot, an employee can change the settings on the thermostat to a cooler temperature. The act of changing the thermostat changed, or allowed them to escape, the uncomfortable temperature in the room.

2. Avoidance contingency

Avoidance contingency allows the person to engage in the desired behaviour to avoid or postpone an unpleasant experience. It's also known as discriminated avoidance, which people experience in most of their daily activities. For example, an employee works hard to achieve targets during normal hours to avoid working extra time in the evening.

3. Free-operant avoidance contingency

Free-operant avoidance entails the avoidance behaviour occurring at any moment to postpone an uncomfortable experience. It varies from the normal avoidance contingency because it may not require the presence of a signal of the unfavourable situation. For instance, this occurs when a machine operator lubricates a machine, knowing that it might break down at some point if not lubricated.

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

Benefits of negative reinforcement at work

Organizations may utilize a negative reinforcement strategy to advance and inspire specific behavioural patterns in their employees. Team members can also use this method to motivate their teammates to engage in particular behaviours. The technique is applicable in numerous sectors, such as sales, education, banking, telecommunications, and any other industry that requires collaboration to achieve specific goals or accomplish certain projects. Here're some of the benefits of using negative reinforcement:

Strengthens desirable behaviours

When negative reinforcement immediately follows a particular behaviour, it can enhance that certain positive behaviour. By showing that undesirable consequences get reduced or removed following certain behaviour, you reinforce and promote the behaviour. For example, a manager can offer to cancel an undesirable weekly training meant to improve sales if the sales numbers are high. This offer to terminate the activity may help encourage increased sales.

Related: What Is Behavioural Learning Theory? (3 Types with Examples)

Motivates employees

Ambiguity about achievement can cause stress. Organizations can reduce employee anxiety by providing clarity on expectations and the consequences of failing to meet them. Management teams can create a fair framework by regularly responding to every employee's performance. This lowers the chances of an individual experiencing unfair treatment. Employees may feel more motivated and engaged at work if they know that the working condition offers equal treatment. Negative reinforcement can also positively influence the employee's morale because it provides a chance to remove an undesired situation.

Ensures long-term behaviour changes

Negative reinforcement is an effective way of controlling behaviour. Because the strategy bases its argument on the principle of avoiding undesirable results, managers can leverage this desire to change the behaviour of employees. For example, a manager may condition an employee to improve their performance to avoid unwanted weekend training. The knowledge of an extremely undesirable outcome can encourage individuals to change their behaviour.

Enhances production and provides immediate results

When you effectively manage employees in an organization using the negative reinforcement technique, you enhance individual results, which leads to improved organizational outcomes. For instance, team members may work faster during regular business hours if they understand failing to finish a task potentially results in extra working shifts. Employees may become more efficient and work toward the company's common objective.

Negative reinforcement can also produce instant results as employees work faster to avoid negative consequences. This can be useful in projects that require a quick turnaround.

Related: What Is Reinforcement Learning in AI and How Does it Work?

Saves costs

Negative reinforcement may not require the development of special abilities acquired through expensive training. Instead, it entails identifying a negative behaviour and learning to change it by offering a more favourable condition. As a result, it's a simple and cost-effective technique.

Promotes accountability

Negative reinforcement establishes a system of accountability by providing immediate responses to employee behaviours. Employees know that the consequences of their behaviour depend on their performance and contribution to the organization. They also understand how their behaviours influence their treatment and advantages, resulting in increased accountability and efficiency.

Related: What Is the Psychology of Learning? (3 Types with Examples)

Ensures equity

Negative reinforcement is a method of applying expectations equitably within a company. Organizations can avoid potential unfairness by imposing the same unfavourable consequences on all employees. This enables all employees to maintain their enhanced performance to eliminate negative activity. The strategy can also improve a company's production by motivating low-performing employees to improve to avoid consequences.

Improves clarity on the expectations

Because performance or behaviour determines the removal of negative consequences, there's no confusion about whether the team's performance meets the standard requirements. This makes it easier for each individual to make changes and enhance their performance, which is beneficial to them and the organization. For example, a team that manufactures shoes knows that the expected production quota is 1000 pairs per day; otherwise, they might require overtime to meet the quota.

Related: Classical vs. Operant Conditioning: Differences and Benefits

Disadvantages of negative reinforcement

Although negative reinforcement has several advantages in the workplace, it's also essential to learn about its drawbacks when misused. Here are some of the main disadvantages of this technique:

  • Can be ineffective with wrong timing: Negative reinforcement is more effective when removing the unpleasant consequence immediately after the desired behaviour. Failing to do so can cause confusion about the correlation between the two aspects.

  • May lead to minimal efforts: When you apply the strategy for some time, employees know the production threshold to avoid the consequences. This might prevent them from performing more when they reach the target unless you continue establishing new targets.

  • May hinder creativity development: While negative reinforcement ensures on-time completion of tasks and overall production, it may prevent employees' creativity. To avoid this, ensure you integrate the method with other positive reinforcements techniques, such as offering incentives.

  • May reinforce undesirable behaviour: Because negative reinforcement uses psychology to enhance behaviours, it may encourage negative behaviour. For example, a manager asks an employee to clean the office and they do a poor job knowing that the manager is likely to ask someone else to complete the duty in the future.


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