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Want to Motivate Someone? Reward Them Immediately, Says New Research From Cornell

Maybe making workers wait for their year-end bonus isn’t such a good idea after all.

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BY Glenn Leibowitz - 29 Sep 2018

Want to Motivate Someone? Reward Them Immediately, Says New Research From Cornell

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Many people still look forward to the last month of the year when they receive their annual bonus. And most companies continue the practice of doling out bonuses only once or twice per year as a way to motivate workers to stay on task and reach their goals. Many also use this approach to make sure employees stick with the company--at least until the end of the year.

But new research shows that providing rewards earlier and more frequently, rather than waiting until a task is done, or until a full year of work is complete, could actually make people more interested in doing a good job.

Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University, found that giving people an immediate bonus for working on a task, rather than waiting until the end of the task to reward them, increased their interest and enjoyment in it. People who received an earlier bonus were more motivated to pursue the activity for its own sake and even continued with the activity after the reward was removed.

"The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task," Woolley said. "But for activities like work, where people are already getting paid, immediate rewards can actually increase intrinsic motivation, compared with delayed or no rewards."

In one experiment Woolley conducted, she found that providing an immediate bonus led to a 20 percent increase in the number of people sticking with the task after the reward was removed compared with a delayed reward. An earlier bonus increased interest in the task, and people wanted to continue it even with no bonus.

In another experiment, she found that giving smaller rewards earlier actually motivated people to continue reading than giving a larger reward once they had completed their reading task.

What could be driving this response? "If you have a hobby--say you like to knit or quilt--the process itself is enjoyable...You're doing it just for the sake of doing it, rather than for the outcome," Woolley said. Adding immediate rewards has a similar effect: Increasing the positive experience of the task can boost motivation and persistence.

If the results of this research actually play out in larger corporate settings, the implications are interesting. Smaller but more frequent bonuses given throughout the year could motivate workers more than making them wait for that single large payout at the end of the year.

And perhaps the research has broader implications for influencing customer behavior as well. By doling out more frequent rewards as part of customer loyalty programs, for instance, marketers might encourage customers to make more purchases.

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