Negative Reinforcement: Exploring the Ethical Considerations in the Workplace

CoachHub · 5 January 2023 · 7 min read

There are different methods superiors implement to promote desired behaviours or outcomes in the workplace. Superiors often use either negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is the method of removing, eliminating or reducing aspects of aversive stimuli to promote the occurrence of a desired behaviour. The goal of negative reinforcement in the workplace is to encourage employees to practise certain behaviours. Negative reinforcement pushes employees to find new ways of completing their tasks faster and more efficiently to prevent harsh or negative conditions in the work environment. The possibility of an unpleasant condition could move employees to provide better results that will help them avoid the unpleasant conditions.

In recent times, there has been research into the efficacy of negative reinforcement as opposed to positive reinforcement in the workplace. A lot of the concern surrounding negative reinforcement is that it doesn’t really encourage job satisfaction or promote creativity. While negative reinforcement may produce the needed results in employees, there is always the possibility that employees start to lack the motivation to perform well without external influence. It doesn’t do a lot for improving the morale of the work environment.

What is negative reinforcement and how does it work?

Negative reinforcement is the process of eliminating an unpleasant condition or factor from the workplace after employees have produced the required behaviour or outcome. The goal of negative reinforcement is to increase the possibility of employees producing the needed behaviour. Negative reinforcement comes from the principle of operant conditioning which is a study of how living beings (humans and animals) learn the right behavioural traits from the consequences of their actions.

Operant conditioning states that learning is a continuous active process. A lot of actions in our environment have their own consequences. If these consequences are favourable, they tend to continue with the behaviour but if the consequences are negative, the behaviour is stopped.

In this case, negative reinforcement means taking something away. It is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus to encourage people to act a certain way.

Examples of negative reinforcement

One of the most common examples of negative reinforcement is driving. Let’s say a person is running late for an appointment and they intentionally drive above the speed limit to meet up.. As they drive, they spot a police car with its lights flashing behind them. In order to prevent being pulled over, the person then slows down and adheres to the speed limit. Next time, the person tries to be earlier for their appointment so they can stick to the speed limit.


Negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement

Despite the literal difference in the individual terms, negative reinforcement is not the antithesis of positive reinforcement. They both increase the possibility of employees repeating the desired behaviour. The main difference in both phenomena is the kind of consequences implemented to achieve this result.

In positive reinforcement, the superior provides a desirable consequence after an employee performs the needed tasks or behaviour. This encourages them to carry out such behaviours in the future because they know they will be rewarded. These rewards could be in the form of bonuses or vacation days.

Negative reinforcement on the other hand can be exhibited when employees complete their tasks on time to avoid having to spend extra hours at the office. The absence of extra hours here is a negative reinforcement that encourages employees to perform their duties efficiently.

Negative reinforcement creates an environment where employees are more willing to work towards the improvement of the organisation to avoid negative or uncomfortable consequences.

Positive reinforcement is often advantageous in the workplace because it creates a more positive stimulus for employees. They have more positive goals to work towards that benefit them directly. Even though it is not the same thing, negative reinforcement can often feel like a punishment when the difference is not made clear.

When to use negative reinforcement

Though negative reinforcement can be effective, it mostly works well when it is implemented immediately. Positive reinforcement is best for long-term changes. It is also important to note that while the timeframe during which the consequence occurs is important, it is beneficial to change things depending on the individual’s motivations and character traits.

When employees make a mistake at work, it is to be expected that they will be implemented. Facing consequences like overtime or having to go over their work over and over will serve to motivate them to do better in the future. There are a few instances where negative reinforcement can be beneficial for the overall growth of the employees within the organisation.

Negative reinforcement helps people learn from their mistakes and make it possible for professional growth and development to occur easily. As explained in the operant conditioning theory, human beings tend to learn what to do from the consequences of their actions.

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The potential harm of negative reinforcement

In a work environment where employees are constantly berated or reprimanded publicly or privately for their mistakes, the consequence begins to feel more like a punishment than negative reinforcement. This could create a toxic and uncomfortable work environment based on fear. This pushes employees to try to avoid making mistakes that will lead to that consequence.

The downside to this kind of negative reinforcement is that it can quickly turn sour. Employees become more inclined to hide and cover up their errors instead of trying to correct them.

This is not to say that employees should not be held accountable for their mistakes. However, this accountability or criticism can be done constructively instead of through punishment or in a way that dampens their morale. This reduces the occurrence of negative feelings and fear when mistakes occur. Employees are more likely to improve and learn when their mistakes are not treated in a toxic manner.

Another risk of excessive negative reinforcement is that it could promote the growth of harmful power dynamics among superiors and subordinates. There is always the possibility that abuse of power occurs. Employees may start to feel like their rights are being taken away when only negative reinforcement is used as an incentive to get them to perform their duties.

Addressing negative reinforcement with digital coaching

Many habits are difficult to unlearn alone. A workplace that has thrived solely on a culture of using negative reinforcement to achieve desired results may find it difficult to leave that culture behind. This is where digital coaching comes in.

Digital coaching is a way of helping people overcome old behaviours in favour of more positive new ones by meeting with coaches virtually. It is just like a traditional coaching session in that the coaches are real people. The main difference is that the meetings between the coaches and the clients take place through technology.

In a work environment where negative reinforcement has always been used to get employees to perform better, digital coaching can help superiors understand better ways to create a less toxic work environment. It can also help employees communicate their needs more clearly.

Most times, people require the insight of a neutral party. Digital coaches can help with this as they can show superiors in the workplace better ways of incentivizing workers.

Alternatives to negative reinforcement

Effective communication is an important way of improving positive behaviours in the workplace. Rather than always scolding employees or using negative reinforcement to make them perform their duties. Communication makes it easier for superiors to figure out positive methods of improving the quality of work in the office.

It also helps to include positive reinforcement. People generally respond better when they have certain rewards for completing tasks. In this case, they would be working towards getting something instead of avoiding a negative consequence. This is good for improving job satisfaction and the desire to do better.


Even though negative reinforcement is not the same as a punishment, it can still have negative implications on the overall psyche of the workplace. It is necessary to implement more positive strategies to improve the quality of work.

Positive reinforcement can cause improved feelings of satisfaction among employees and it encourages them to do their jobs without the threat of a negative consequence hanging above their heads.

At the end of the day, you want to get the best results from your employees so you need to be careful with the kinds of reinforcement you use in the workplace. Digital coaching is an effective tool in helping superiors and employees build a more efficient working environment.

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Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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