Aubrey Daniels: Performance Killing Mistakes

Aubrey Daniels
Aubrey Daniels

Aubrey Daniels is the author of Bringing out the Best in PeoplePerformance Management, Other People’s Habits, Measure of a Leader, and OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time & Money (and what to do instead).

Daniels thinks many management practices do more harm than good. We asked him how we can help clients rethink their existing practices.

Interview Summary: How to Make Positive Reinforcement Work

  1. Make It Personal: Understand what motivates each individual.
  2. Make It Contingent: Ensure that the person truly earned the positive reinforcement.
  3. Make It Immediate: Positive reinforcement affects the behavior that is occurring at the time it is given.
  4. Make It Frequent: A pat on the back once in a while will not impact behavior.

Adapted from Oops! by Aubrey Daniels

McLaughlin: Do you think we’ve gotten any better at managing people in the last ten years or so?

Daniels: Are we managing people more effectively? I don’t think so. The current systems, processes, and management behaviors are the same as they were ten years ago. And they are just as ineffective as ever. I think managers just continue to make the same mistakes over and over.

McLaughlin: What needs to change?

Daniels: Managers and executives need to major in understanding human behavior as a scientific subject. Most of them devote time and energy to learning how to read a balance sheet but don’t learn about behavior beyond the most simplistic level.

Managers certainly haven’t gotten much help from the many “experts” who have written about this subject. Most of the literature is either anecdotal or just expresses opinions without credible scientific backup.

McLaughlin: What are some of the fundamentals of behavioral science that we ought to be applying to management, and why hasn’t that happened yet?

Daniels: It hasn’t happened because most mangers have had little or no exposure to these ideas. Even in programs for advanced degrees in business and economics, the only exposure to behavior is through cognitive psychology, which is basically the state of the mind.

Since they can’t read minds, most people dismiss the whole psychological aspect as irrelevant to day-to-day management. Or maybe they pick up some tidbits from time to time that seem to make sense to them. Our experience is that when manager learn what this discipline has to offer, they say, wow, why aren’t the business schools teaching this?

McLaughlin: So what aspects of behavioral science are managers missing?

Daniels: I think many of them don’t understand how consequences shape behavior. The popular press has trivialized positive reinforcement so much that managers think all they have to do is smile, pat people on the back, and tell them they’re doing a good job. You can’t expect anyone to take that seriously.

Well, yes, we need to be more positive. In fact, I would say that positive reinforcement is at the heart of all growth. It’s the only way that you capitalize on discretionary effort.

But it’s very important to understand that timing is crucial: positive reinforcement affects the behavior occurring at that particular time. Unfortunately, in most work environments, the consequences come too long after the behavior they intend to affect.

Frequency is another issue. Managers think you can create an employee-of-the-month program and that’s going to magically motivate everyone.

The point is that each person is motivated for different reasons and responds to different kinds of reinforcement. We need strategies that help us manage large numbers of people but still maintain personalization for the workforce.

Many managers just don’t know how to do this. They think, well, I can’t possibly get to know everything about everybody who works for me. So they don’t try to get beyond the superficial with anyone. We end up with an impersonal workforce and still expect people to do their best, which is not realistic.

There are some basics about human behavior that have been tested and proven again and again for almost 100 years, and positive reinforcement is one of them. In terms of creating bottom-line business results, positive reinforcement is clearly a most effective tool. And yet the average manager pooh-poohs or trivializes it.

McLaughlin: Don’t some managers find it difficult to dole out positive reinforcement?

Daniels: Yes. Well, they haven’t been trained to do it, and I would say that it doesn’t come naturally. We tend to be better at punishing than rewarding and reinforcing.

McLaughlin: One of the 13 management mistakes you talk about in the book is awarding annual bonuses. What’s wrong with giving bonuses?

Daniels: There’s nothing wrong with a bonus in and of itself. Lately, I hear people talking about getting rid of bonuses altogether, as if the bonus is the problem. The trouble is the way managers give bonuses.

Let’s say you’ve got ten people in a particular job classification and, at the end of the year, you give each of them a bonus of $1,000. Well, if you’ve got one goof-off among those ten people, then the least damage you’ve done is to reinforce that person for goofing off. What’s worse is that it upsets the other nine people who worked hard to accomplish the results.

Managers need to engage in practices that make a positive difference and everyone in the organization needs to be clear what those are. If you’re going to award annual bonuses, you must provide a way for people to track how they are doing toward that goal long before the end of the year.

McLaughlin: What’s your view of using stretch goals as a basis for planning?

Daniels: There’s nothing wrong with having lofty ambitions. For example, why not aim to produce a million items without a defect? What’s wrong with that? The problem comes if we try to manage by those lofty aims.

The research tells us clearly that what we call shaping goals are more effective in achieving high performance than stretch goals.

When you take action to accomplish a goal and you receive positive reinforcement for that accomplishment, you want to do more. No one has to push you in that direction—you push yourself. And you’re going to accomplish more than a stretch goal would ever aim for.

I suggest replacing stretch goals with many, mini goals to reinforce small accomplishments. That generates energy, excitement, and enthusiasm for longer term goals—those lofty aims.

McLaughlin: Let’s shift gears and talk about managing talent. How are organizations doing with nurturing and developing vs. recruiting talent?

Daniels: I would tell any manager to always hire the best people you can hire. Now the problem is what do you do after that?

In many companies, some individuals end up being labeled as “smart,” and then managers treat those individuals differently than people who don’t wear that label. The “smart” ones get more training and more coaching. The boss assigns better mentors to them, and is more likely to excuse their mistakes. The assumption is that if they make a mistake, they can learn from it. If somebody who doesn’t rate the smart tag makes that same mistake, the boss thinks well, that’s the problem with that person.

I think we waste a lot of time, energy, and money concentrating on smart people. There are lots of capable people in companies already and, given that same kind of training, coaching, mentoring, they would do just as well.

McLaughlin: Of the 13 management mistakes, are there one or two that are more prevalent than the others?

Daniels: As I mentioned earlier, managers don’t spend enough time trying to learn the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. But what leads to many of the 13 mistakes is what I call non-contingent reinforcement: We reinforce the wrong behavior at the wrong time in the wrong way or with the wrong frequency.

Another persistent mistake involves performance appraisals. Over the last 50 years, we’ve made some minor changes to that process. But it’s not really better now than it was 50 years ago. It’s certainly no more effective. When you understand some of the fundamental laws of human behavior, you see how that process fails on almost every issue.

McLaughlin: One final question: If you were to give a manager just one piece of advice, what would it be?

Daniels: I would say try to make your employees’ accomplishments visible every day, and have some way to track those accomplishments so that you and the performer can see them clearly. My other advice would be to learn how to value even the smallest improvements in ways that are meaningful to your employees.

McLaughlin: Thanks for your time.

You can learn more at

You might also be interested in our interview, Aubrey Daniels: The Measure of a Leader.

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