An Academic Take on Delayed vs. Immediate Rewards

August 21, 2018 Sarah Mulcahy

Kaitlin Woolley

How would your company’s compensation and benefits hold up in an academic study? Are you delivering rewards at the right time – according to research – and maximizing on employees’ intrinsic motivation?

To answer these questions, we sat down with assistant professor Kaitlin Woolley at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business. Kaitlin studies consumer motivation and goal pursuit, and recently published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled, “ It’s about time: Earlier rewards increase intrinsic motivation.”

We talked about the implications of her research, especially as companies consider the value of delivering more lower-value rewards throughout the year, as opposed to one lump-sum annual bonus.

Read our Q&A with Kaitlin below.

Globoforce: What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Kaitlin: Intrinsic motivation is when an activity is seen as an end in itself and extrinsic motivation is when an activity serves a separate outcome. For example, someone who runs because they enjoy running in and of itself is intrinsically motivated, whereas someone who runs for some other goal – to improve their health, for example – is extrinsically motivated. Or someone who finds benefits in the work they do (e.g., it is meaningful; they enjoy their colleagues; it provides a positive challenge) is intrinsically motivated, whereas someone who only works for pay or vacation days is more extrinsically motivated. Of course, people can experience both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – they can work for pay but also find their work meaningful. 

Globoforce: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of your research with Ayelet Fishbach, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, on reward timing?

Kaitlin: This research compared how rewarding people for a task either immediately or with a delay influenced their subsequent interest and enjoyment of the task, as well as their desire to continue the task in the future without additional rewards. Our research finds that immediate rewards increase intrinsic motivation because they connect the activity’s outcome more closely to the activity itself, so the activity became rewarding on its own. For example, in one study, people worked on a task in return for a bonus. When the bonus arrived sooner, people enjoyed the task more and were more likely to do the task later on when no bonus was offered, compared with those who received a delayed bonus for their work.

Globoforce: What is the main takeaway from your research for HR and people leaders?

Kaitlin: Managers worry about undermining interest by giving employees rewards; my work suggests immediate rewards can actually enhance interest and enjoyment of work. We further found that people were more sensitive to when rewards were delivered rather than to how much of the reward they received; managers can think about delivering smaller rewards more immediately rather than waiting until the end of the year to give a larger bonus.

Globoforce: Immediate rewards increase motivation. What about immediate versus delayed feedback (like an annual review)?

Kaitlin: Although I have not yet explored the role of immediate (vs. delayed) feedback on intrinsic motivation, it likely depends on the valence of the feedback. Positive feedback is similar to a reward; it likely enhances motivation when it is immediate (vs. delayed). Future research will need to address the role of immediate (vs. delayed) negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. 

Globoforce: What implications does your research have on increasing motivation for team-based, collaborative work?

Kaitlin: Working with other people we get along with is an immediate reward in itself. People working in teams can focus on immediate benefits – like getting to brainstorm with others and work through problems as a group – to increase their intrinsic motivation, rather than focus on the delayed outcomes of their work. My research suggests that when people are intrinsically motivated, this will have beneficial consequences for their motivation and persistence.

About the Author

Sarah Mulcahy

Sarah is senior content marketing manager at Workhuman. When not writing and reading about all things culture, leadership, recognition, and appreciation, she enjoys iced coffee, running, and spending time with her daughters, Mabel and Eva.

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