ITHACA, N.Y. — Bosses: Don’t miss the memo. Patience may be a virtue, but it’s not always the best policy for the office. A new study shows how more periodic compensation — especially rewarding a person at the outset of a project — trumps a big paycheck later on when it comes to employees’ levels of focus, engagement, and job satisfaction.
Researchers at Cornell recently conducted five related behavioral experiments, hoping to better understand how spacing out work-related incentives — or “reward proximity” — affected one’s levels of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in completing an assigned task.
One experiment tested the perseverance of participants in an image-matching activity, finding that those who received an immediate incentive were 20 percent more likely to stick with the task than those whose incentive was delayed. The earlier the incentive, the better its staying power, the researchers found.
Another experiment sought to understand the relative importance of proximity to other perks. It found that participants viewed an immediate incentive nearly twice as enticing as receiving a larger incentive.
“The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task,” says Kaitlin Woolley, the study’s lead author, in a release. “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 other words, once you’ve already committed to completing a task, it helps to actually see the fruits of your labor. Progress and receiving a reward become a feedback mechanism, pushing you to greater heights when the going gets tough.
As Woolley puts it succinctly: “You’re doing it just for the sake of doing it, rather than for the outcome.”
This study offers a blueprint for how firms should dole out compensation packages, the researchers argue. Bonuses, for example, should be distributed throughout the year as opposed to only during the holidays — even if less is ultimately paid to employees.
Applications for this research can also be found outside the workplace, such as with loyalty programs administered by marketing firms.
“More evidence suggests immediate rewards are beneficial,” says Woolley. “They’re a useful tool for increasing interest in an activity.”
The researchers published their findings in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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