Episode 390: Green Beans and Ice Cream. The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement with Bill Sims Jr.

Episode Summary

Throughout our conversation, Bill explains why leaders must learn to provide and measure positive reinforcement and what are the best ways to provide it. He talks about how writing a book about what he thought was wrong in the employee reinforcement recognition field transformed him into a motivational speaker.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. We are honored and delighted that you join the show. We have a special guest with us today. His first book, entitled “Green Beans & Ice Cream — The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement” has garnered rave reviews. He has built more than 1,000 positive reinforcement systems at firms including DuPont, Siemens, Coca-Cola, and Disney, and holds issued patents in the field. Recently, he formed to capture and share best practice safety leadership and culture around the planet. Welcome, Bill Sims Jr! 

Bill Sims Jr: Thank you. Pleasure to be here, Steve. Thanks for having me here today. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, so glad to have you. And before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Bill. He is the president of the Bill Sims company. For more than 30 years, Bill has created positive reinforcement systems that have helped large and small firms inspire better performance from employees and increased bottom-line profits. He is a world-renowned keynote speaker and recently was selected as one of the top 10 speakers by the National Safety Council. And I’ve been looking forward to this. So, let’s just jump right into it, Bill. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you. What’s led to you doing this today? 

Bill Sims Jr: Well, I appreciate that. I got my start in the early ‘80s, working with Ford, Disney, DuPont, and many, many large companies. My passion then was saving lives and improving workers safety. One of the early things that I developed was—and actually trademarked it—a tool called Safety Bucks. Safety Bucks went off like wildfire. It was a way of positively reinforcing people for doing things the right way: Wearing your hard hat, lift with your legs, wear your PPE — the list went on and on. So, after doing that for year after year, learning — you learn from success, you learn more from failure, frankly, and then began to craft really what we do today. It dawned on me somewhere around 2005 that a lot of the things that I was reading in magazines, newspapers, internet, about employee reinforcement recognition and bringing out the best in people were just plain wrong. So, I decided, “You know what, I’m gonna write a book to set the record straight.” That book became eventually what it is today: Green Beans & Ice Cream — The Remarkable Power of Positive Reinforcement. I had no idea that I’d wind up being a motivational speaker. And that really sort of spun out its own life. So, I began doing keynote speeches, leadership workshops, and all of these things have just been a really fun journey to be on. I’m glad it’s hopefully not over yet. We’ve got a few more legs in the journey. But today, I’d say there are three things that we really do. And I’ll get into those more in-depth if you want me to break those down at the high level. But the beginning was always helping companies change behavior, increase morale, and engagement through positive reinforcement. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s the ideal. I love it. So, how do you do that, Bill? 

Bill Sims Jr: Absolutely. I always say that the three rocks in my world are: number one, what is positive reinforcement? And why do I care as a leader, as a teacher, as a parent, as a CEO, as a supervisor? What is it and why do I care? And that is the first rock, which is basically my keynote speech, a number of them; the book, Green Beans & Ice Cream, that we’ve mentioned earlier. I always say to people, “We’re really, really good as leaders telling our employees and our kids, when they do something wrong. Maybe where we need help is telling them what they did right.” And my mom figured it out. She said, “Son if you eat your green beans, you can have ice cream.” So, she had no clue what she was unleashing on you poor people, I’m sorry for that. But when we focus on the positive in people, performance moves off the chart, engagement, safety, quality, customer service, retention, all these things that companies say they want more of and struggle to get, positive reinforcement is the energy that drives that. So, that’s really the first conversation that we have with companies through either the book or the keynote. Sometimes companies bring me in as a keynote presenter, doesn’t have a lot anymore. But every now and again, it’ll still happen; they bring me in, and I’m kind of the one-hit wonder: “Hey, thanks very much for coming in, Bill. We really didn’t want to fix our problem, we’re just looking for a band-aid. We’re gonna get some other motivational speaker next year.” That’s okay. But what we really like or enjoy is the companies who say, “Wow! We want to know more about positive reinforcement. And we want to create a common language or blueprint for our leadership team when we talk about human behavior and positive reinforcement.” So, that’s really the workshop, that’s the how. I call it SEL, stands for Safety, Engagement, and Leadership.  

Bill Sims Jr: The SEL course is really designed with a couple of fundamental jumping-off points. One is “What makes great leaders great?” I know we’re gonna probably get into that more, and “How do you go from good to great? And how do you measure all that?” So, the SEL workshops really helped supervisors develop those soft skills. Tragically, the soft skills, ironically, are the hard skills. So, that’s the gap that we work to help fill. So, workshops teach me how. And then the third and final rock in my world is the what. So, once the company has started thinking about positive reinforcement using science and the evidence, not opinions, then they have a very different look at what they’ve been doing — “Hey, wait a minute, maybe barbecue dinners and t-shirts are not really motivating for our team the way we thought. Maybe company logo ball caps are not number one on everybody’s want list or bucket list. We need a better way to do this.” So, that third rock is the what — what are the systems and tools your company needs to have in place to measure engagement, morale, leadership, and positive reinforcement. We call that third rock, smartcard. It is a patented software tool, unique enough to get a patent. It’s not right for every company, but it helps a lot of companies to fix some of the problems that they struggle with. Because if you can’t measure positive reinforcement, you can’t manage it. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, Bill, what have you found are the most effective ways to provide positive reinforcement? Whether you are a CEO, a group leader, an office manager, a team leader, a coach, or a parent, what are the best ways to provide positive reinforcement? And then what gets in the way of it? 

Bill Sims Jr: Oh, well, boy, we could be here for hours on that one question. The book is full of what not to do if you’re trying to deliver positive reinforcement. So, there are so many bad attempts at this. I was at a speaking engagement in I believe it was Puerto Rico. A young lady on the table next to me was holding her cell phone, and she was frustrated and angry, and she was talking to her girlfriend next to her and she said, “I hate my boss.” And I listened and she went on to explain it, so I had to introduce myself. I said, “I’m sorry. You gotta tell me why you hate your boss.” She says, “Every morning, I get this text message: ‘You’re the greatest. You’re the best. I love you.’” And I said, “So, what’s so bad about that?” She said, “He cuts and pastes that message to every single person in our department.” So, that’s an example of what not to do. What I always say, I tell a story in my workshop, and for brevity sake I’ll just omit the story and give the lesson from the story. At its very basic level, there are three things that you have to do to connect with another human being for it to truly become positive reinforcement. If you don’t do all three of these things, you didn’t get it right and you might as well not do it. And the three things are, “I know who you are. Here’s what you did, and here’s why that matters.” First thing you have to do. You can’t positively reinforce people if they don’t know you and they don’t know you care. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. That means you’ve got to invest time to learn something about that person; who’s their kid and their grandkid? What do they like to do when they’re not at work? So, you’ve got to know who they are, number one, and you’ve got to be purposeful and strategic with that.  

Steve Shallenberger: I love it. These are three really important things. Good job. So, you need to know the person. Here is what you did or what you do. And number three, this is why it matters. Let’s go through that first one. What have you found really good ways to get to know people better? I love the fact you’ve brought up grandchildren. How about workers? Many times somebody will say, “Oh, I’ve worked next to so and so for 10 years. I don’t really even know them.” So, how do you get to know people better? How do you get to know their story? What have you found? And then let’s hit these other two. Good job. 

Bill Sims Jr: We’re gonna stay in that first bubble of “I know who you are.” A good friend of mine, Dr. Charlie, and I’d recommend you have Dr. Charlie on the show one day, or the two of us. We go together like peanut butter and jelly sometimes. Charlie would say, “You’ve got to know who’s in their backseat.” Who’s riding in their backseat? Because who’s in their back seat is who they love. It could be a pet, like in my case. It could be my pet: first name, Ted, middle initial E, last name, Bear — you get it. It could be a grandkid. But it’s somebody that they care about. So, the questions that you might ask are, “What do you do when you’re not here at work? What do you do for fun? Do you have kids? Are they in football? Dance class? What do you and your spouse like to do when you’re not here? Why are you here? There are a number of questions that you can ask to show a genuine interest in people. And the important thing is when you do that, you need to be taking notes because you’ve got to remember it right somewhere. So, knowing who they are is, I think, the first step. And then there are probably thousands of micro steps, but that moves us to the “here’s what you did.” And maybe before we get to the “here’s what you did,” another icebreaker is, I think about Captain David Michael Abrashoff in the book, “It’s Your Ship.” He goes up to these 18-year-old enlisted men and women, “Can you tell me why you’re in the Navy?” Now, he’s in a ship that he’s commanding. That’s the worst ship in the Navy: 70% turnover, horrible safety performance, housekeeping is a pig stalk. And he begins building a relationship with a simple question: Why are you in the Navy? “Well, my mom’s a drug addict. My dad’s in jail. It’s the only shot I got, Sir.” So, hold on, here’s Commander Abrashoff showing a warm personal interest in that 18-year-old, kid hugely positively reinforcing. And then another question you can ask, “What are some of the things we were doing here at our company that we should not be doing? And what are some of the things we’re not doing that we should be doing?” And those two questions, if leaders can be humble and be servant leaders, employees will pay you back multiple millions of dollars with what they know that you don’t know. Because they know that job better than anybody; they do it eight hours a day.  

Bill Sims Jr: So, we’ll get into the workshop more, how do you build that relationship so that you truly do know the people and they know you. And that then moves this to the “Here’s what you did? Are you ready to go there or do you want to poke around?” So, I was in Saudi Arabia teaching a class at Aramco — that’s the state-run oil company, they’re huge. One of the young 23-year-old grads engineers, obviously from that country, said, “My boss frustrates me no end.” And I said, “Well, why?” He says, “Every time I present, he says, ‘Good job. Good job, Abdul.’ And he says that to everybody on the team. And finally, I went through him frustrated one day and said, ‘Tell me why it was a good job.’ And he couldn’t because, frankly, he was zoned out through it.’” So, you have to be able to answer that here’s what you did. You have to have something specific that they did that you want to point out that was done correctly. It doesn’t have to be an academy award-winning moment, it just has to be something they did right. And once we get to that point of “here’s what you did.” Now, we come to probably the most important point of all, and that is, “Here’s why that matters.” In other words, connect what I did to a vision or mission that’s greater than me. So, for instance, I’ll put it in perspective. If I’m a supervisor and you’re a construction worker, and I’ve been trying to get you guys to wear your hard hat, and you don’t want to wear the hard hat because it looks funny, it’s uncomfortable, it’s hot, it’s whatever. There are all these reasons that people don’t want to do that. But if I come over to you, and I say, “Steve, I really, really appreciate you wearing your hard hat, and here’s why.” So, number one, I told you what you do; you wear your hard hat. And here’s why: Because you’re gonna go home safe tonight to those two little girls and that dear wife that you told me about last week. So, now I know who you are, I demonstrate that, I took the time to know about you. And I want you to be safe, I worry about you guys at night. So, now I’ve connected the hardhat with a whole higher level of vision and mission before. So I think those are the three elements that have to happen. And so sadly, so often, most of the time, they never happen.  

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s say, from your experience, that there’s a family member, an employe, or somebody on your team that is doing something that’s out of order, something that’s out of line, it’s not fitting, it’s out of the norms, how do you set up that conversation and use positive reinforcement at same time but address something that needs to be corrected? What have you found the best way to do that, so people are encouraged, they take hope, and they say, “Oh, yeah, I can do better. I want to make a real contribution here”? What have you found works best? 

Bill Sims Jr: I think before you can give negative reinforcement — it’s the clinical term for what you’re describing — or coaching feedback, which is a much better way to describe it, you’ve got to build the relationship. You’ve got to have multiple contact points, where you’ve told that kid, “Here’s what you did right. I’m really proud of you. This is what you did right.” And you’ve dropped a lot of positive reinforcement coins in their mental social bank account. And then you can say, “Joe, you did a great job with your follow-through on that swing. Next time, I want you to do that and do this as well.” So, it is building a relationship with the person through positive reinforcement so that when you do give them coaching feedback, they hear it and listen to it. Now, the problem is with many people, you’ll hear this 15-year-old kid says, “Hey, Dad, 15 years since I’ve been here, can you tell me one thing I’ve done right?” “No, I can’t.” So, there’s your problem. We fed them on a diet of negative reinforcement. All they got was green beans for 15 years, they never got any ice cream. So, it is a blend of the two with an emphasis on positive reinforcement, which is proven scientifically, a million times better than negative reinforcement, punishment, or penalty. Now, if somebody is doing something that you don’t want them to do, you can’t ignore it. If you ignore a bad behavior and you say nothing, you just positively reinforced the bad behavior. But the key would be many leaders default to only negative reinforcement — we call that leave-alone zap. We leave people alone and say nothing when they do it right, we zap them when they make a mistake. You have to flip the scenario to where I’m getting positive feedback on what I did right multiple times, so I can handle the coaching feedback because I know you’re coming to me as a friend and a mentor, not somebody with a big stick and a punisher. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love your terminology there. How have you found, Bill, the best way to create a culture of positive reinforcement and positive coaching? How do you do that as a team or an organization? What are leaders need to be doing? 

Bill Sims Jr: Well, the first thing they need to do is understand what positive reinforcement is and is not. That sounds simple and easy. But everywhere I go, it takes me about five minutes to figure out that the leadership team at that organization is not really sure what positive reinforcement is, and they have a difference of opinion. So, I think the first thing is for leaders to spend some time either with my book or a keynote to really get an understanding of positive reinforcement based on science, and it is very different than what most people believe. For instance, to illustrate that, one of the things I usually do in any session I conduct is I’ll ask a group of 20, 30, 40 people—whether it’s Disney, Boeing, wherever—a simple question: “All right, guys, let’s talk about the average teenager working at McDonald’s, flipping burgers, cleaning out the toilet, making minimum wage.” For that average teenager, at McDonald’s, making minimum wage—take yourself out of the equation for a minute—is a paycheck positive reinforcement? And there are three possible answers your audience could give me. You could say, “No, I don’t think it is. It’s just an entitlement.” Or you could say, “Maybe. I’m not real sure here, Bill Sims. I kind of think it varies from worker to worker. One kid might want to come to work and get the paycheck, another one might rather be skateboarding or playing video games.” And then you could be a yes, “I think a paycheck is a positive reinforcement.” And what I’ll do is count hands. And invariably, here’s what’ll happen: About 30% of the audience will raise their hand to say, “No, I don’t think a paycheck is a positive reinforcement.” And then about another 40% will say, “Bill, I’m a maybe on this one. I can’t make up my mind. I think it depends on the work.” And then I’ll get usually a minority of people, about 10-20%; they raise their hand and they say, “I think a paycheck is a positive reinforcement, Bill Sims. You ought to know the answer to this, you wrote a book about it.” So, not to put you on the spot, but I’d love to get your take on it. I always say to people, “Your answer is your answer, from your perspective.” Is a paycheck positive reinforcement? No, maybe — it depends on the worker, or yes. Where would you land, Steve?  

Steve Shallenberger: I would say that it’s a basic requirement, but it’s not what motivates people. What motivates people is where they work, why they’re there, and how can they grow? Are they happy there? I think there’s a lot more. That’s just my perspective. 

Bill Sims Jr: I appreciate it. And you’re right there in one of the largest groups, that’s the ones that say no. And then you have the maybes, it depends on the worker, I can’t make up my mind. I always like to have a lot of fun with the “maybes”. Let me just let y’all know something. Y’all attend the church of the undecided, just let me know. And then I have another fun joke with the ones who answer yes. So, then there’s this aha moment, where I say, “Well, look, guys, with all due respect, I gotta tell you, honestly. Y’all got a problem. You disagree with the answer to my question. You’re all over the map. And if you can’t agree, whether something as simple and basic as a paycheck is positive reinforcement, how you’re all going to execute on a strategy to deliver it. You can’t.” Dr. Deming says, “You have to define it to do it.” So, I said, “Let me get you all out of this session, at least, and get you on the same page with one another so you can be thinking about this strategically.” Is a paycheck positive reinforcement for you and every employee on this planet? And here’s the drumroll cliffhanger: Absolutely yes. It reinforces one and only one behavior: getting you to come to work every day. If you don’t believe me, I got an experiment we do. Here’s how it goes down. We take away your paycheck for two years and I start standing by your desk count, how many days you keep showing up at work. So, now I ask the question again, is a paycheck positive reinforcement for the behavior of showing up at work? And everybody says, “Yeah!” The next question, though, is the one where we get another aha: Does that paycheck, by itself, guarantee you’re gonna give me voluntary effort in the moment of choice when I’m not there watching for safety, quality, productivity, customer service, whatever? And the answer is, clearly, “No, it doesn’t.” So, to get voluntary effort, which is what we’re after, in the moment of choice, that’s what every leader is trying to achieve — a few do, and most never do because they’re not good enough. To get that, requires positive reinforcement, coaching, and servant leadership from every leader on your team. And that’s why you’ve got to have a way to measure it so you manage it and hold people accountable. Positive reinforcement is more important in your business than what’s in your bank account. 

Steve Shallenberger: There are so many things we can talk about today. We’ve been having fun here. I wish we had more time, we’re closing in at the end here. You spent much of your life in recognizing the safety world, what are some of the most important ways you found to get people thinking about safety as a way of life? 

Bill Sims Jr: Safety is such a fascinating place to apply behavioral science. It is one of the largest, most widespread, successful deployments of science in business in the field of safety. And that’s the other thing that I talk about; the idea that zero injuries is the goal. Actually, we’ve proven that now causes more people to die than anything else. The goal, as I’ve said, for 20 years is beyond zero injuries. So, how does that all intersect? What does that look like? How do you go beyond zero injuries? Well, we articulate that. And then, in particular, safety leadership — what does that mean? For everybody in the organization, what is it? How do I do it? If I’m purchasing agent, a CEO, a supervisor, a frontline worker, turning wrenches, what does that mean for me? And I think helping people see that and understand that, that’s really what I love about SEL, not only that the training works, that it reduces injuries sometimes 40% and 50% when companies embrace it, but it also gives us a wonderful, better way to think about safety than the way classic safety is perceived. Safety is boring till somebody gets killed, and then it becomes very important. Well, how do we make it so that it’s important all the time?  

Steve Shallenberger: Any final tips you’d like to give to our listeners today? It’s been a great discussion. 

Bill Sims Jr: Focus on the positive things of those around you and your family, your home family, and your work family. And focus on the positive things that happen today and celebrate those yourself. It’s okay to tell yourself that you did this right. You may be the only one that ever will. So, don’t get cocky or arrogant, stay humble, but look for the positive. I believe if we look for things and positive events to be grateful about, it will make us better human beings and happier. So, I’d say that’s my tip for the day. 

Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about what you’re doing, Bill? 

Bill Sims Jr: Real simple, two websites: is where they go for the book, and then to learn more about my work, they can head to On that note, it’s been a pleasure being with you and all these wonderful folks. Steve, may life bring you lots of ice cream. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, good. Thanks for joining us today, Bill Sims Jr. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us. We wish you the best in all that you’re doing. And to all of our listeners, we’re so grateful that you join us today. We admire you. We are grateful to you. Your desire to become your best; that spirit is so transformational in itself. So, we wish you a great day and the best in all that you’re doing. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Bill Sims Jr.

President at The Bill Sims Company

President at The Bill Sims Company, Speaker, Author

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