Rewards Sooner Rather Than Later Are More Effective

by Nancy Ordman

Giving immediate rewards for work on a task motivates workers more than delaying the reward until the task is complete.  This conclusion challenges the conventional wisdom that early rewards reduce interest in task completion.

Kaitlin Wooley of Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management studies consumer motivation and pursuit of goals. The research reported here examined the effect of reward proximity at work on intrinsic motivation – where a person’s interest in or enjoyment of a task drives engagement with the task. Wooley points out that engaging in a hobby is enjoyable and thus provides its own immediate reward.

Employers bestow most tangible rewards, like salary increases or performance bonuses, well after the achievement that prompted the bonus. Wooley tested several variations on this schedule. In one of Wooley’s studies, 20 percent of participants who expected to receive a bonus immediately after completing a task stuck with the task even after Wooley removed the reward. In another study Wooley compared reward timing with reward size and found that 35 percent more participants that were promised an immediate bonus continued with the task after the reward was withdrawn.

Wooley suggests that employers increase intrinsic motivation by offering early and more frequent bonuses. This research also suggests that loyalty programs could benefit from immediate rewards.

“The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task,” Woolley 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.”