Bosses can benefit from the element of surprise

Surprise! Don’t offer rewards to colleagues simply for doing their job.
Surprise! Don’t offer rewards to colleagues simply for doing their job. (Source: Getty)
The element of surprise is considered an asset in negotiations. In a scenario where both parties are trying to discern what the other is willing to accept, the unexpected can destabilise the other side and rush them into accepting a suboptimal offer. But what about other areas of business?
As Heat Advertising’s Scott Redick told the Harvard Business Review, surprise can be a real asset for marketers. While many successful business leaders warn against keeping team members in the dark, it can be just as fruitful for bosses. According to Robert Plutchnik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion, our emotional responses are heightened when we are surprised. So how can bosses use the unexpected to inspire their staff’s loyalty and boost their productivity?


Giving employees a bonus, instead of a higher basic rate of pay, may encourage them to work harder. A study by Harvard Business School found that offering higher wages as part of an initial hiring package does little to increase productivity. But when bosses told staff that they had suddenly found more in the budget for pay, and they were rewarding staff with no strings attached, the money prompted employees to work as much as 20 per cent harder. The study concluded that employees were likely to adjust their expectations about how much they can command as a basic salary, making the bonus seem generous.
One of the researchers, Deepak Malhotra, said that companies should think carefully about how they pay employees, and not just what they pay them. “The same amount of compensation can be structured in ways that will be more or less appreciated and reciprocated.”


However, managers should be careful not to issue spontaneous rewards unless an employee has gone beyond the call of duty. Indeed, the downside of being spontaneous is that there is no framework to ensure fair distribution among high performing staff. Worse still, spontaneous rewards are unlikely to make staff work harder as a consequence of them feeling more valued or appreciated. Known as the “overjustification effect”, rewarding work which is expected of staff may demotivate them, in some cases.
In 1971, psychologist Edward Deci conducted an experiment which found that people who were interested in solving a puzzle were likely to put less effort into doing so if they knew they were receiving a monetary reward compared to if they were receiving no monetary reward at all. This is known as curbing their “intrinsic motivation”.


It might be better to steer clear of spontaneous monetary incentives altogether. “Creativity can be challenging in a corporate environment, and the traditional motivators – salary increases, bonuses, promotions – are both expected and can be in short supply, depending on company and individual performance,” leadership author Victor Lipman told Forbes. Instead of money, he recommends offering incentives like tickets to sports events and concerts to high performers, or giving them a free day off after a gruelling project, with no holiday time counted.
Such rewards aren’t right for every business. But small, unexpected gestures can make colleagues feel valued precisely because we don’t know we want them.

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