Say “Thank You” Unexpectedly to Motivate More Powerfully

Recognize This: Unexpected appreciation is a far more effective motivator than a predictable reward.

A friend, trying to explain to me the joys of parenting immediately after venting about the challenges, sent me this article in Slate. To be honest, the parenting stories didn’t stick with me as much as this observation:

“If you give animals a predictable reward—say, a shot of sugar every time they press a lever—you can get them to press that lever quite regularly. But if you want irrational and addictive behavior, you make the reward unpredictable. Pressing the lever produces sugar, but only once every 10 tries. Sometimes, the animal might have to go 20 or 30 tries without a reward. Sometimes it gets a big jolt of sugar three tries in a row. If you train an animal to work for an unexpected reward, you can get it to work harder and longer than if you train it to work for a predictable reward.”

And that is precisely the difference between incentives and recognition. Irregular, unpredictable, but highly desired praise for work well done, work demonstrative of company values, work that contributes to strategic objectives, work that keeps the team running smoothly – most certainly encourages and, dare I say, motivates employees to want to continue those behaviors.

It’s proven in the scientific literature, too. If you thank someone, they are 100% more likely to help you again in the future than if you don’t. It’s simple. But the meaning and power of true, sincere appreciation is limitless.

Would you (do you) work harder when you know there is a possibility of recognition for your efforts or when you know you’re working to a predetermined reward? Why?

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