Bringing Out the Best in People


I always say that managing people is the toughest job in the word. Our company is like the United Nations. We have people of places and cultures all over the world. What is funny to one person is insulting to another.

Keeping the harmony while still drive through continues change accompanied with ever increasing demands for efficiency gains and increased productivity; is not easy.

Managing this harmony takes up most of my time and more times than not, I walk away thinking; “I could have handled that better”.

So it was with great anticipation that I started reading Bringing Out The Best In People by Aubrey Daniels, first published in 1994.

In the book, the author describes the power and simplicity of ‘positive reinforcement’. First, he describes the ABC theory (Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence), which forms the basis for his change management theory.

Positive reinforcement has everything to do with the consequences for the individual after he showed the behaviour that we would like to see. To be able to change behaviour, Daniels writes, we need to redefine both the behaviour we would want to see in our organisation as well as the consequences for showing them, or not showing them.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. We need to define both the behaviour we would want to see in our organisation as well as the consequences for showing them, or not showing them.

  2. Having to compete for rewards enforces the wrong behaviour. Rewards should be unlimited

  3. Complimenting is the easiest and cheapest form of positive reinforcement

A person finds himself in a situation in which he is challenged to act (this is the antecedent). He now has the possibility to choose how to react to that specific situation (to show behaviour). The ABC theory says that the behaviour that he will show is dependent on the expected result for him personally - the consequences. These consequences can either be positive - reward - or negative and the consequences of the behaviour he chooses today will impact the choice he makes in similar situations tomorrow.

There are three factors that influence behaviour based on this theory. It matters whether the consequence is positive or negative. It also matters whether the consequence is certain or uncertain and whether you will experience the consequence directly or with delay. To change behaviour, the best consequence is positive, are certain to happen and without any delay. In other words: we should positively reinforce desired behaviour as soon as we see it.

Daniels differentiates between four types of consequences that can be used to learn or unlearn behaviour. Positive reinforcement means that the person who shows the behaviour that we want to see is rewarded with something that he likes to receive. Negative reinforcement means the person shows the wanted behaviour because he wants to avoid a certain consequence.

Punishment means, that unwanted behaviour is unlearned by giving the person something he does not want to receive. A Penalty is to unlearn certain behaviour by taking something from someone that he would rather keep. Daniels stresses that the first way (positive reinforcement) of motivating people to change their behaviour is by far the most effective because it is the only strategy that can motivate people to show the wanted behaviour in the long term.

Daniels describe how to define the behaviour that needs to be reinforced. This is the link between the behaviour shown on an individual level and the organisational goals on the highest level. The goal is to link the vision and goals of the organisation to KPIs and behavioural indicators on individual level.This means, that when standard work is defined, we do not only document what people should do, but also how. This is especially important for indirect functions, for which it is relatively difficult to determine somebody’s performance.

So what is the best way to positively reinforce? Daniels describes a few topics to think about. Material rewards should be unlimited, which means colleagues should not be competing for the same rewards. Having to compete for rewards enforces the wrong behaviour, namely that people will try to hide knowledge from each other to prevent somebody else from receiving that reward. Material rewards are personal, so what can be rewarding to one person, can be a punishment for another. If you want to reward someone in this way, get to know the person so that you know what the person enjoys receiving.

Complimenting is the easiest and cheapest form of positive reinforcement. A pat on the shoulder, a thumb´s up, a “thank you” or “well done” whenever you catch somebody showing the right behaviour, these are the most powerful consequences one can get, without delay and without negative associations. Do not combine compliment with critique or advice. The famous sandwich structure in which critique is balanced with two compliments is very confusing. Critique should be fast and to the point, and so do compliments. When you mix them, the person experiences neither of them.

Doing nothing also influences behaviour. When a person shows extraordinarily good behaviour and does not get any feedback from colleagues or managers, that person will eventually stop showing that behaviour. The opposite is also true. When you stop positively reinforcing the behaviour you want to see, people will stop behaving that way. Daniels links this principle to the kaizen behaviour that is of major importance within every lean initiative.

Every time somebody hands in an improvement proposal, he should be positively reinforced by both implementation and verbal compliments, even when this idea does not necessarily bring you the big savings you are hoping for. When the individual does not get positive reinforcement on his behaviour of thinking about improvements, he will stop showing that behaviour and the organisation might not get his greatest ideas.

To summarise his theories, Daniels describes 5 steps to make change easy and efficient.

1. Plan positive reinforcement for wanted behaviours in a new system or process 2. Eliminate positive reinforcements for behaviours that are no longer appropriate because of the change of systems or processes. 3. Positively reinforce new behaviour more than you think is necessary to make the change stick. 4. Expect a fallback of behaviour. It is not uncommon for people to fall back into their old habits. You have to simply keep reinforcing. 5. Expect emotional bursts. When you stop reinforcing certain behaviour, people are naturally going to react emotionally. Talk to the people and listen to their feelings, but always keep on reinforcing the new behaviour.


What I took from it.

The ABC theory teaches us that a direct, personal pat on the back is the best way to reinforce new behaviour. It is therefore, according to Daniels, easy to plan a cultural change. Simply define the behaviour that you would like to see and ask all managers in the organisation to complement their team member whenever they see that behaviour. Even better would be to put positive reinforcement in the form of complimenting others as a KPI on Leader Standard Work and discuss this topic with every manager regularly.

My Rating

Motivating and well worth the read. Simple description of how to make people happy at work and how to effectively manage employees. Written with simple understandable language, it will make you want to practice all those techniques right away.