Rewards and classical conditioning are some of the first things you learn about in psychology; giving positive reinforcement for a job well done increases someone’s motivation and positive association with that task. Years later, though, it doesn’t feel like employees in a company are as easily swayed as the experimentees we learned about in school… or are they?

We know that people of all ages love receiving rewards, but did you know that organizations that implement rewards programs see an average of a 34% increase in productivity from their teams? 

That sounds fantastic! As simple as it sounds, though, a system of rewards isn’t an automatic boost to productivity and employee engagement. The question of HOW you give rewards can be the difference between an eager team and an uninterested one.

(Tip: the question of WHAT rewards you give can be answered by employee surveys and a robust incentive platform!)

So, do you give small rewards often, or big rewards once in a long while? Do you give them for expected work, or when they go above and beyond? Let’s figure it out.

The When

For decades and decades, the standard for businesses has been to give out rewards or extra cash at the end of a fiscal year. There’s the classic holiday bonus, of course, but raises and prizes also often come from an annual performance review. 

It makes sense that this has always been a popular strategy; it’s exciting for employees to receive something so significant, and it’s an easy thing for employers to keep track of and take action on. There is one issue, though, and that’s the fact that when the end-of-year prize isn’t on their doorstep, workers often lose sight of it.

That’s why other people-leaders, especially in recent years, have turned to giving out smaller rewards on a more consistent basis. Employees always feel that their prize is coming up, and if they happen to miss out on it for one reason or another, their turnaround time to earn it is much faster.

This interval can be once a quarter, once a month, or it can be whenever you feel it’s appropriate. Either way, when rewards come down the line several times a year, many employees appreciate it more. It’s just like that wish you had when you were a kid that Christmas could come all the time – except in a more professional setting, with fewer toys. (probably.)

So neither is the wrong answer, per se, but which is the right answer? Let’s turn to science:

An American Psychological Association study was done on this exact quandary, and lucky for us, it turned up actionable results. As it turns out, people who receive immediate & frequent rewards for completing tasks are more satisfied and motivated than those who received a larger reward at the end of a long period.

The study also confirmed that engagement in work stays mostly intact even after the reward system is taken away. Please never cancel your team’s reward system, though – just know that it’s working to build real interest in their work.

The Why

Whether to reward standard effort or only extra effort is an even older question, and one that’s not as easily answered through a study. Some leaders say that a paycheck is the reward employees get for standard effort, but that’s a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with most people anymore.

You don’t want to evenly distribute incentives and undervalue someone’s outstanding work, but you also don’t want to only reward certain people and leave others feeling underappreciated. So, do a bit of both!

Give everyone a chance to receive small rewards for general work, like a monthly night out or gift cards, while leaving extra rewards to those who hit milestones or go above and beyond. A great way to do this is a dedicated online incentive program that utilizes a points system. Points are easy to track, earn, and understand, and it puts an employee’s rewards redemption in their own hands.

If someone hits their sales quota for the month, they can earn a free lunch delivery from a local restaurant. If someone doubles their sales quota, they could earn a whole week of it. No one leaves frustrated, as the terms and rewards don’t seem arbitrary like they could without a system.

The moral of the story is to be consistent; don’t save your rewards til the end of the year, and don’t leave anyone empty-handed.

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