The Power of Positive Reinforcement

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to discuss Guardian Tracking with Dr. Neal Trautman, director of the National Institute of Ethics.  Dr. Trautman heard about Guardian Tracking from an Oregon police chief who had attended his ethics course.

We spoke for over two hours.  The experience was rewarding and affirming.  Leon and I have always believed in, and trained on, the power of positive reinforcement.  My discussion with Dr. Trautman helped further validate our beliefs.  After our conversation Dr. Trautman sent an email and in it said:

“The employees of your organization should feel a deep sense of gratification from the fact that the Guardian Tracking Program is and will continue to greatly enhance police professionalism and maintain integrity.  I wish we could acquire funding for all 18,000 agencies to have it.  I think it will soon be a new national standard.”

Neal E. Trautman, PhD
Director, National Institute of Ethics
(Dr. Trautman will not, in any way, ever receive any compensation for making this comment)

Let me tell you briefly about a couple of experiences which helped shape my beliefs.

In January of 1977, after completing a tour with the Marine Corps, I began my career with the Anderson (IN) Police Department.  One of my earliest experiences with performance documentation involved my sergeant’s “little black book”.  We often referred to this book as the “Holy Grail”.  At evaluation time my sergeant would call me into his office to discuss my performance appraisal.  The sergeant would pull out his “book” and point out the things I had done wrong during the previous year.  There were no notes about the things I had done right.  It seemed odd to me that the sergeant only recorded the negatives.

I was confused.  We were discussing, for the first time, incidents that occurred months earlier.  Anyone with children knows the value of immediately praise and correction.  It seemed reasonable that immediate feedback would be just as important for employees in an organization.  And what about recognizing my positive contributions to the organization?

When I was promoted to sergeant in the early 90s, I had the opportunity of review the personnel files of officers on my shift.  I quickly learned that it was not just my sergeant who documented only negative behaviors; it was part of our organizational culture.   What about all of the positives?  I had spent years as a patrol officer and a detective and I knew that most officers were doing great work on a daily basis.

It was these experiences that helped shape me as a supervisor and eventually lead me to Guardian Tracking.  I have always believed that positive recognition drives positive performance.  That belief is at the very core of why Leon and I started Guardian Tracking.   At the same time we are not naïve and we understand that negative performance must be documented.   Those are the events which will bring about liability issues and, in the case of law enforcement, can get an officer hurt. Documentation should accurately reflect what is going on with an employee.  How can we support personnel decisions without fair, accurate, and complete performance documentation?  How are we to defend our personnel if documentation only reflects the negative things they have done?

As supervisors we must document the negatives, but the power of positive reinforcement cannot be understated.