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It’s good to feel rewarded by the work we do at our workplace.

What that looks like may vary from person to person but ultimately it boils down to: being acknowledged for a job well done, being trusted to get on with what you know you’re capable of, feeling a sense of pride in what you do and enjoying great working relationships.

“I love coming to work. I’m always learning new things. My manager is very encouraging and ensures I get lots of training. I get on really well with everyone here at work, they’re all so supportive and I love chatting with the clients.”

I was at the hairdressers and had asked one of the young trainees who I had noticed was busily bustling around the salon with a huge smile on her face, if she enjoyed her work.

The answer I discovered was a resounding yes, despite her daily commute of three hours on public transport and her starting salary being quite low.

Her enthusiasm was infectious and I have no doubt she will continue to flourish in her chosen career.

What was noteworthy was her acknowledgment of feeling part of the team, of being liked and encouraged to step up. In other words she was being treated as a person with potential.

While working in a hairdresser’s salon is naturally very customer focused, any workplace that starts off by being employee focused automatically elevates the customer experience while raising performance, health and happiness.

Raising the reward stakes at work

If you’ve working hard on a project that’s paid off very well for your company, how do you get thanked?

Do you receive a nice bonus in your pay packet?

Does your boss give you a pizza voucher?

Or do you get a personal compliment?

And which feels the most rewarding?

This was the question Dan Ariely, Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and author of Payoff asked in a research project at an Intel chip factory in Israel.

What he discovered was that all the options initially increase performance. But after a few days performance dropped significantly in the cash bonus group. For those who had received the compliment the decrease was the least, while those who received the pizza voucher the decrease was somewhere in the middle.

Traditionally perks and bonuses have been seen as the way to incentivise employees to work harder, this research demonstrates money doesn’t activate our intrinsic motivation to do great work. It’s more effective to tap into what does, which Ariely summarises as, make the work rewarding, build trust and provide challenge to build pride i.e. treat people as human, and say thanks.

The brain’s reward pathways

While not wanting to get too bogged down in the science, there are two main components of the brain’s reward system, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. In the 1950’s studies using rats where electrodes were implanted into specific areas of the rodent brain led to the rats self stimulating themselves up to 7500 times in 12 hours indicating they were deriving pleasure from it.

Fortunately most employers do not resort to such means to motivate their employees to work harder. Rather it is the specific compliment that makes the biggest difference. Feeling rewarded triggers the brain’s reward circuitry to release dopamine, which motivates us to repeat the triggering behaviour.

This was also seen in a Japanese study in 2012 that showed how people performing tasks did better when complimented by someone else. Forty-eight subjects were asked to learn and perform a specific pattern of tapping a keyboard in a particular sequence as fast as possible in 30 seconds.

The group was then divided into three. The first group had an evaluator who complimented participants as individuals. The second group would see when another individual was complimented and the third group evaluated their own performance on a graph.

On repeating the finger sequence test the following day, those who had received a personal compliment performed the best.

Naturally this is about using praise appropriately. It’s not a let’s give everyone a gold star and saying “Great job!” just for turning up.

Also if your boss starts giving you too many compliments, you might start to wonder if there’s another hidden agenda!

It’s the little things that mean the most.

Like being personally thanked for staying late to finish a task.

For being acknowledged as the person who goes that one step further to help a colleague.

Praise when used wisely can be highly motivating, building trust and confidence.

Which all leads to more good days at our workplace, a sense of fulfillment and greater happiness.

How do you reward others in your workplace?

Our social intelligence, knowing how to raise others up by sharing our appreciation demonstrates our humanity.

That’s smarter, sharper thinking at work.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

One Comment

  • julienne Smout says:

    I work as a volunteer in mental health and my reward is being supported by professionals and friends and seeing the people I am supporting get better and take responsibility for themselves and staying well

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