We are more motivated to work when the payoff comes sooner rather than later

Some managers think they need to dangle the carrot of a bonus after you hit a metric to get employees to work harder. But a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found this method to be counterintuitive. Turns out, we work harder and better when we get an immediate payoff for a project. In fact, we’re more likely to enjoy doing it when we already have an immediate payoff guaranteed.

Immediate rewards increase motivation

Getting rewarded before the end of the project will actually increase your motivation to complete it, Cornell researchers found in five behavioral experiments. They found that when employees were offered a pay incentive immediately, their focus, engagement, and job satisfaction in an activity got boosted.

In one experiment, participants were told they would get a bonus immediately after they finished a task, while other participants were told they would get that bonus in a month. Being told that the money would come later was not as satisfying as knowing the money was going to be there soon. The immediate bonus increased engagement long after the project was done. Participants who got it said they were more interested in doing the activity. They even became more likely to keep doing the activity after the reward was removed. The immediate bonus led to about a 20% increase in the likelihood of participants sticking with the task.

“The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task,” Kaitlin Woolley, one of the study’s authors, 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.”

Why is the quick payoff more motivating? The researchers suggest that it’s because the guarantee of money helps you focus. Once you have the financials squared away, you can take pleasure in the activity for the sake of doing it, not just because you need to get it done to get paid. It becomes similar to the pleasure of a hobby: “If you have a hobby – say you like to knit or quilt – the process itself is enjoyable, it’s intrinsically motivated. You’re doing it just for the sake of doing it, rather than for the outcome,” Woolley said.

If you want your employees to stay motivated at work, try offering frequent smaller bonuses for their work. That may be more rewarding for employees in the long-run than one large end-of-year bonus.