Tragic Mistakes #5: Negative Reinforcement

I like to start with an encouraging image.

I like to start with an encouraging image.

What really makes a bad boss terrible? There are many answers to this fine question, and I’m sure even with my experience I can’t provide all the answers, but I can tell you one of the big ones. A terrible boss is the type that only relies on negative reinforcement to try to improve the workplace. Negative reinforcement is the type where a boss tells you or another employee what an asshole they are and all of the things they do wrong. In the mind of the person doing the negative reinforcing, this will make you want to work harder to please them. If you’re familiar with the list of Good Ways To Encourage Someone you’ll be shocked to know that negative reinforcement doesn’t make the cut. For some odd reason, most people (in this case, anyone who isn’t a boss) think that negative reinforcement is detrimental to the energy in a workplace, but it’s likely because they haven’t been told what a shitty job they’re doing lately. Am I right?

No. I was being facetious. I’ve worked for the Kings of the Negative Reinforcement world, and I’m guessing so have you. When some asshole boss (usually the same type who won’t help out in a rush) reams an employee out it makes them want to quit and find a job where the boss doesn’t have self-esteem issues. Luckily with the job market being what it is today, people will stick around and continue to take the abuse. Don’t be silly about thinking they’re going to work harder for someone who never praises them. That’s the way bad bosses think. I know, I know, all bosses are like this. Wrong. I’ve actually worked for more than a couple who understood that putting some people down just makes everyone depressed and makes nobody want to work harder.

The flip side of this coin is positive reinforcement. This is where you see someone doing a good job and tell them just that. When your boss compliments your work suddenly you actually do want to work harder. You want them to do it again. Other people who hear it want to work harder so they’ll be complimented. Shouldn’t negative reinforcement make it so that you want to work harder so you can not be reamed out again? Sadly, this doesn’t work. At least not for me, and I’m not silly enough to think I’m that unique. The problem with negative reinforcement is that most of the people who do it are doing it strictly to feel better about themselves. They can go back to their office, or wherever they collect scuzz, and tell themselves that they’re not letting their employees take advantage of them. Another sign of a terrible boss is assuming everyone they hired is trying to cheat them. This stems back to the lack of self-confidence.

How do I know so much about negative reinforcement? It’s simple. I come from a long line of negative reinforcers. My dad hasn’t complimented me or said anything positive regarding me in the last fifteen to twenty years of my life (I lost track along the way) but he has managed to play devil’s advocate for anything I’ve said in that time. Any ideas I have about bettering myself he has something negative to say about it, always in the exact same tone. It’s funny, that tone, I think my dad taught me how to tune it out and not listen to it. It’s not his fault, though, he sounds exactly like his dad when he talks that way, and his dad was exactly the same way. This is the leading reason why I’m terrified of having kids. I’m sure they both said they didn’t want to be that way, and look where that got them. My great-grandfather is a mystery, as are all the men behind him, but I seriously doubt it started there. We all like to encourage people by shitting on the things they say or do. I see myself doing it with my friends and I hate myself for it. The only positive thing to come out of it is my daily battle to compliment people on the good things they do. I have a feeling this is one of the things that endears me to my friends and makes up for the other times.

If your workplace is a venomous nightmare then you’ll likely find the best thing you can do is try to provide positive reinforcement even though you’re not the boss. People who have been letting that crap get them down will feel a lot better when someone they work with, even though it’s not a boss, has someting nice to say about their work. This has a way of bringing the workplace back up to a tolerable level, and the nice thing is people will often catch on and spread it around. This ultimately just makes your boss look like an even bigger asshole, but the truth has a way of hurting, my friends, and they probably are as big an asshole as they look. If you are a manager and you think I’m incorrect then maybe you should turn things around for a day and see how people react. Maybe they’ll even compliment you for the little work you actually do.

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2 Responses to Tragic Mistakes #5: Negative Reinforcement

  1. sonjablade22 says:

    I think I’ve been lucky enough to not have to many bosses like that. Reading this makes me cherish the little complements how corny (or at the moment may feel sarcastic coming out of their mouth) they may feel. I think sometimes people take the little things for granted and sometimes they are the most important.

  2. rose2852 says:

    I had a boss like the one you describe once upon a time; I lasted six months with him and quit. What a relief that was – for both of us!

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