Organizational Behavior Modification - Encouraging Desirable Behaviors

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In any organization or relationship between individuals there are behaviors that are unwanted or undesirable to oneself or others. For example, in a business where productivity is limited due to established processes not being consistently followed, or on a project team where functional resources are not reporting accurate task completion dates, one party would stand to benefit from the elimination of the other’s detrimental behavior. Human beings, by nature, engage in the changing of others’ behavior. In fact, through both verbal and non-verbal behavior, people are constantly shaping others’ behavior, both rewarding and punishing. Sometimes these attempts at behavior modification succeed, and the rewards and punishments meet the intended goals. Other times, however, the attempts fail. Someone will try to shape another’s behavior, and their efforts are counterproductive. Behavioral modification can work, though, as long as it is understood and carefully managed.  Organizations have long utilized behavior modification techniques to elicit desired performance from their employees.  These same concepts can be used to improve the performance of team members working in a project setting.

What is Behavior Modification?

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Photo by Zach Lucero on Unsplash

Before attempting any type of behavior modification, it is important to understand how it works.   Behavior modification examines the antecedents and consequences of a set of target behaviors (Boan, 2006).  The driving force behind most behavior modification programs and techniques is operant conditioning (Scott, Swan, Wilson, and Roberts, 1988). The operant conditioning model assumes that:

  • Behavior produces consequences

  • Behavior is a function of its consequences;

  • Behavior followed by positive consequences tends to be repeated and behavior followed by negative consequences tends to stop.

Additionally, it assumes that how people behave in the future will depend on what consequences their behavior elicits. These assumptions can be summed up by Thorndike’s law of effect (, which states:

If one’s actions have pleasant effects, then they will be more likely to repeat them in the future. If, however, one’s actions have unpleasant effects, they are less likely to repeat them in the future.  

This perspective on understanding human behavior focuses on observable outcomes. There is no need to understand the internal state of the person, only what is observable. Furthermore, this approach assumes that:

  1. All complex behavior is learned, shaped, and subject to observable laws;

  2. One can change behavior through rewards and punishment;

  3. Behavior is determined by the environment (determined by the consequences or anticipated consequences of that behavior);

  4. Some of what we learn is not the direct result of reinforcers but is rather the result of observing others and the consequences of their actions and modeling our behavior;

  5. Virtually all work behavior is operant, meaning it generates consequences in its environment and these consequences in part shape and control behavior.

How Can Behavior Modification Be Used in the Workplace?

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

In an article on, Golnaz Sadri (2015) states that behavior modification can be very easily implemented in a business or organizational setting to encourage employees to engage in desirable behaviors and to discourage them from engaging in behaviors or activities that are considered undesirable.  Sadri continues to state that performance can best be improved by completing the following:

  • Conduct training sessions to inform employees of the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of the program.

  • Identify a time frame and feedback methods.

  • Give employees regular and helpful feedback as they embark on the process of behavior change.

  • At the time specified, measure the target behaviors again and implement the program of rewards.

For example, if excellent customer service has been established as the desirable outcome or goal, then the manager needs define and train the employees on what “excellent customer service” looks like.  Furthermore, they need to explain how the employees will be measured on their performance.  Does “excellent customer service” mean that they do not receive any negative responses on customer surveys?  Does it mean that they have an extremely fast mean time to resolution rate?  The manager should take care to carefully design, outline, and implement their performance indicators.

Reinforcement Methods

When beginning to implement a behavior modification program, it is critical to decide upon the correct reinforcement method.  There are four different types of reinforcers (Scott, Swan, Wilson, and Roberts, 1988). Some of these reinforcers encourage behavior, while others discourage behavior. The first reinforcer is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when an act is followed by a pleasurable reward. An example of this is when a child does something right and their father praises them. The second type of reinforcement is negative reinforcement. This occurs when an act is followed by the absence of an aversive consequence. For example, a child does something correctly and their father does not criticize them. The third type of reinforcer is extinction. The principle of extinction states that if, in a given situation, an individual emits a previously reinforced response and that response is not followed by a reinforcing consequence, then that person is less likely to do the same thing again when he or she encounters a similar situation. An example of this is when a child does something wrong and their father does not praise them as he often does. The final type of reinforcer is punishment. Punishment occurs when an aversive consequence is given in response to an unwanted behavior. For example, a child does something wrong and their father criticizes them.

Reinforcement Schedule

In addition to the reinforcement method, a schedule must be chosen.   Schedules can either be Continuous or Partial (Scott, Swan, Wilson, and Roberts, 1988).  A continuous schedule is reinforcing the desired behavior every time it occurs, while a partial schedule is reinforcing the behavior on either a ratio or interval.  It is easy to see that a continuous schedule is difficult, if not impossible, to implement and maintain.  For that reason, partial or intermittent schedules are more widely used and considered to work best in an organizational setting.  Sadri (2015) provides the following explanation and example:

Intermittent schedules of reinforcement (or punishment) can be based on a fixed or variable number of responses (ratio) or on a time period (interval).  Fixed-ratio and fixed-interval schedules of rewards and punishment are important when employees rely on the consequence—a great example is an employee's base pay. Eric is paid $2 for each unit he produces (ratio); Sarah is paid a salary for every two weeks of work (interval). When they were newly hired, these pay schemes motivated both Eric and Sarah to perform at their highest level. However, three years into their employment, they have each become accustomed to performing at a certain level and receiving a set amount of pay.  Their manager notices that for each, performance is at a plateau. At this time, it is necessary to layer in a system of intermittent rewards to boost performance to a higher level. The manager could set a challenging goal for Eric's department, with each employee who meets the production goal in that quarter receiving a bonus. For Sarah, the manager could praise her for her punctuality in getting things completed and give her movie tickets as a fun reward.

Components of an Organizational Behavior Modification Program

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Once the concepts behind behavior modification are understood, one can go about creating a behavior modification program. A behavior modification program is comprised of several steps (Swenson,

1) Target specific behaviors.

2) Analyze the causes and antecedents of existing behavior and the barriers to new behavior.

3) Set concrete, measurable goals.

4) Training.

5) Clear reinforcement.

6) Concrete continuous feedback.

A program such as the above when implemented as part of an performance management process can be an extremely helpful tool in eliciting desired behaviors from team members.  Similar methods are currently used in organizations all over the world; understanding and utilizing behavior modification techniques such as reinforcers and reinforcement schedules can be an invaluable tool.


Cognitive  Behavior Modification and Organizational Culture – David Boan – Consulting Psychology Journal – 2006

Organization Behavior Modification:  A General Motivational Tool for Sales Management – Scott, Swan, Wilson, and Roberts – Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management – 1986

Organization Behavior Modification:  A corrective behavior strategy -

Improve Employee Performance with Behavior Modification -

Law of Effect -

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