The second of my articles this month explores the positive reinforcement element of my “leading hybrid teams” model.

This model highlights the areas in which leadership competency needs to be elevated to successfully lead high-performing hybrid teams.

Karen Ferris graphic

The definition

Positive reinforcement is a concept from behavioral psychology that can be used to both teach and strengthen behaviors.

When you use positive reinforcement, you add a reinforcing stimulus when a particular behavior is exhibited, making it more likely that the same behavior will happen again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event or reward takes place after an action, the particular response or behavior is strengthened.


As a leader you can apply positive reinforcement when you observe or hear a member of your team displaying a behavior you would like to see more of. The behavior might be supporting a team member, innovating, problem solving, using initiative, providing great customer service or showing leadership capabilities.

Positive reinforcement will both acknowledge a desired behavior and encourage that behavior.

You can provide positive reinforcement in many ways, including:

  • Public recognition and praise
  • Private recognition and praise
  • Saying thank you
  • Gift cards
  • Concert or movie tickets
  • Celebration breakfast/lunch/dinner
  • Monetary rewards
  • A physical or virtual pat on the back

Positive reinforcement in hybrid teams

As a leader, it’s easier to observe positive behaviors when physically co-located with your team. It’s also often easier to provide positive reinforcement. You can reach out and pat someone on the back and say, “Well done. That was a great presentation you delivered to the executive this morning.”

Those abilities, to observe and to recognize, are more difficult in a hybrid environment.

You may not see the extra lengths a member of your team went to serve a customer. You may not hear the praise a colleague gives one of your employees for their support and guidance of a new team member. While you may also miss this when co-located, the situation is exacerbated in the hybrid team.

Make it everyone’s business

Make positive reinforcement of colleagues a shared team value. Make provision of positive reinforcement everyone’s business.

Provide clear guidelines about the sort of behaviors that should be positively reinforced and those that should not. Generate these guidelines as a team. Decide what constitutes business as usual and what constitutes going the extra mile. Agree on the types of behaviors the team wants to see more of. It could be a high level of effort, learning from mistakes while experimenting or supporting colleagues when they are struggling, for example.

Agree on what “good” looks like. Document the behaviors and provide concrete examples of what they look like in practice so that everyone has a shared understanding.

Request updates on positive reinforcement that has been provided so that you can acknowledge it.

You can make positive feedback public by creating a virtual “kudos” wall where employees can post their praise for the actions of a colleague.


If positive reinforcement is to have the desired impact, there are fundamental principles that have to be applied by whoever is providing the reinforcement.

Make it personal. For positive reinforcement to be effective, it needs to involve a reward that the individual wants or needs. Everyone is unique, so you have to understand the individual and what reinforcers will work for them.

While many people may find monetary benefits a positive reinforcer, some may not. A chocolate gift box may not be the best reinforcer for a diabetic or someone who is trying to lose weight. A dinner voucher for the local steak restaurant isn’t a good reinforcer for a vegetarian.

Find out what motivates and excites your employee and let that inform your reward.

You also need to understand how to provide each person with the reinforcement. For example, some employees may love to receive praise publicly, while others may prefer to receive it privately.

If you insist on public praise for someone who detests being in the limelight, you aren’t reinforcing the desired behavior — you are undermining it. The bad experience you provide in the aim to positively reinforce a behavior will actually stop the employee from exhibiting that behavior again in order to avoid repeating the experience.

Make it timely. Positive reinforcement should be given at the time the behavior is exhibited or as soon as possible after the behavior has taken place. Timely reinforcement results in more of the same behavior. The longer the gap, the less effective the reinforcement.

When reinforcement is delayed, it can reinforce the behavior exhibited at the time the reinforcement takes place, rather than the behavior it was intended to reinforce. An employee, who has earned a reward but receives it only after they have complained about not being recognized, is reinforced for complaining and not for what they did to earn it.
The reinforcement also loses value if it is delayed so long that employees find it difficult to remember the exact behavior they exhibited to earn the reward.

Make it specific. It’s imperative to be clear about the behavior that is being recognized so the reinforcement is effective. A passing comment such as “good job” provides the employee with no indication of what action or behavior is being praised.

An employee can only repeat a behavior when you make it clear what that desired behavior is. When you tell an employee, “That was a great proposal you presented to the board, and I really appreciate the extra effort you put in to deliver it on time,” the employee knows that it was the quality of the proposal, the presentation preparation and the effort expended that is being recognized.

Make it special. Positive reinforcement has to be earned. There must be a direct link between the behavior exhibited and the reinforcer. We are all aware that many of the benefits, rewards and even compensation that employees receive often aren’t for an accomplishment but for being in the right place at the right time. For example, a pay raise may be something everyone gets every year.

The reinforcer has to be something above and beyond what comes with the job. It has to be special and restricted to something that has been “earned.”


When employees make an effort to exceed your expectations, you can’t afford to let the efforts go unrecognized just because they are out of your sight. Arm your team members with the capability and competency to provide positive reinforcement to their colleagues for the right behaviors, in the appropriate manner, at the right time and in the right way. Make sure you are aware of who is being recognized and amplify that reinforcement when appropriate.

Karen Ferris is an organizational change-management consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her opinions are her own.

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