The Difference Between Feedback and Reinforcement

We talk a lot about positive and negative feedback, and also about positive and negative reinforcement. Reinforcement and feedback are both useful tools in a manager’s skill set. But are they the same thing?

Feedback and reinforcement are not the same thing, as it turns out. (Though they can be used together to help you motivate and coach.) So, what’s the difference?

Feedback is offering an employee a reflection on their past behavior. You might be praising and encouraging more of it (positive feedback) or criticizing and course-correcting it (negative feedback).  Reinforcement (positive, negative, or punishment) is a psychological tactic to motivates future behavior by incentivizing or de-incentivizing it.

Feedback is something that is a bit easier for us to grasp as a concept because it’s less of a strategy and more of a natural response we have. We have to think less about it. Most of us supply verbal or written communication to our employees or teams—where we reflect the behavior that has already taken place with the aim of encouraging or discouraging a repeat of that behavior.

  • Positive feedback points out what has been done correctly.
  • Negative feedback points out what has been done incorrectly.
  • In other words, positive feedback is about highlighting behavior we like and encouraging it. Negative feedback is about highlighting behavior we don’t want and discouraging it.

You can give positive feedback to correct a problem though. Here are examples of how to give negative AND positive feedback for the same situation, taken from our new guide on positive and negative coaching tactics:


Ben is a developer on your team. He’s very competent, but is introverted, reluctant to come to meetings and can be sharp when interrupted in his work. He does have a great relationship with one designer, Casey.  His attitude is not actionable, but it is impacting morale a bit and you feel it needs to be pointed out.

Positive Feedback:
“Ben, I notice you have a really great relationship with Casey. I’d love to see you continue to develop more strong, positive relationships within our group like that one. Is there something about how you work with Casey that we can replicate?”

Negative Feedback:
“Ben, you need to open up and stop being so unfriendly to people. Except for Casey, the team thinks you don’t like them and it’s causing a morale issue. Please correct this and try to change your attitude.”

In each case, we are trying to correct Ben’s behavior to something we feel will blend better with the team, but we are doing it in two different ways. Using positive feedback to correct a problem may not come as naturally, but it’s worth considering, as studies tell us that the highest performing teams are the ones that use strengths-based feedback.

Reinforcement is something quite different than feedback, but no less useful. In this situation, you are dealing with trying to influence future behavior by offering an employee an extrinsic motivation—whether a reward or a punishment.

Reinforcement is based in the science of operant conditioning, which was explored in the 1930’s by psychologists like B.F. Skinner.  (You may remember him from the dogs who salivated at the sound of the bell.)

Operant conditioning is a way of influencing behavior by leveraging action and consequence—including punishment, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

Here are the three types of reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement uses reward to encourages a behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement encourages or stops a behavior by removing an unwanted stimulus or condition.
  • Punishment adds a negative consequence or stimulus for the behavior (or lack of). 

Here are some examples of each, also from our new guide:


You want your student to come to class on time every day. 

Positive Reinforcement
You tell the student if he arrives to class in time he will get a piece of candy. When he arrives on time you give him candy. He has now been positively reinforced, and the next time may arrive early to get the reward.

Negative Reinforcement

Students who are late to class must make up each day in summer school. Your student arrives on time and can avoid having to attend summer school. He has been negatively reinforced.


You tell the student you will make him pay a dollar every time he arrives late to class. When he is late you make him pay a dollar. Next time he may arrive on time to avoid paying future fines.

In each case, you begin with the same problem, and end with the same result, but there are three different ways of getting to that result. Which is most effective depends very much on the situation, but as managers, it’s important we understand all three.

While there is a time and a place for each type of feedback and reinforcement, studies indicate that praise, recognition, and a continuous flow of positive feedback—combined with positive rewards for achievements—are generally most effective in driving and motivating employees.

If you’d like to learn more about the science of feedback and reinforcement and get some advice on using them in your organizations, check out our new eGuide: Positive or Negative? The + and - of Employee Motivation.