The Psychology Behind Unexpected Rewards

The element of surprise has been proven to be a powerful motivational tool. Scientific studies show that unexpected incentive rewards stimulate areas of the brain connected to behavior development and learning.

With stay-at-home mandates causing what many reference as the “groundhog day” effect, your sales team is the perfect audience for incorporating surprise rewards as part of a sales incentive program to keep remote teams engaged and company morale high. Let’s take a closer look into the psychology behind the element of surprise and how it can be used as part of a larger sales incentive strategy.

Defining the unexpected reward

When it comes to sales incentive strategy, rewards are given for behavior that goes above and beyond basic job requirements. When introducing the element of surprise, unexpected incentive rewards should be received for displaying behaviors that drive your sales goals and align with your company culture. While your current incentive program may already have a quarterly goal or sales threshold in place for your team, unexpected rewards would be granted for quick thinking, closing a deal or going above the call of duty to help a colleague.

What makes unexpected rewards so effective?

In famous experiments on mice, psychologist B.F. Skinner observed that the act of a random reward triggered the most dramatic changes in their actions:

“The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.” (Nir Eyal)

More recent studies have revealed that humans have similar reactions to surprise rewards – specifically the anticipation of the reward. A pleasure center of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is highly activated by the possibility of receiving an award, which unpredictable patterns of rewards play on.

Pleasure isn’t the only part of the brain that perks up when unexpected rewards are involved. The novelty of this unexpected outcome breaks us out of our habit-forming mindset and sparks mindfulness, signaling the brain to absorb important information associated with the reward outcome.

In short, surprise incentive rewards are powerful because they’re universal. You can use them as a tool of instant engagement to make the reward experience more meaningful, which in turn can motive sales teams more effectively.

How to start applying this to your sales team

Unexpected rewards aren’t a blanket sales incentive solution. Like many sales tools, if not used in the right way at the right times, unexpected rewards can fail to achieve their goal or even have an adverse effect. Here are some ways you can use unexpected sales incentives wisely:

Combine unexpected rewards with training.

Because unexpected rewards make people pay more attention to what happens next, combining them with incentive training can have a tremendous effect on how well salespeople are motivated to learn and retain important information. During a training session, for example, you might call on randomly selected salespeople to demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge and provide an unexpected incentive reward if they’re able to.

Motivate sales employees with on-the-spot rewards.

Not only are you leveraging the power of surprise, but you’re also solidifying the brain’s connection between action and reward with on-the-spot rewards. Immediately rewarding behavior has a much stronger impact – and is more likely to motivate salespeople to repeat that behavior – than delayed rewards.

Reward for the right reasons.

A powerful influencer like unexpected rewards leads incentive program participants to find meaning and satisfaction in what they do. It is important not to encourage your sales team toward mechanically performed behaviors, but tie unexpected rewards towards behaviors of inner fulfillment. Unexpected rewards should avoid manipulation, and should facilitate stronger connections between their jobs and their intrinsic motivations.

Define your incentive goals and act strategically.

Spontaneous rewards are excellent as a short-term sales incentive plan or an element of a larger program. It should be noted that if you plan on investing in an incentive program that acts as a long-term sales and marketing tool, you have to be transparent about the program and your intentions. While you should definitely leave some room for program participants to be surprised by spontaneous rewards, make sure they understand the overall picture and purpose of the incentive program and how it ties into your company and sales goals.

There is a world of interesting elements regarding motivation psychology and the impact that rewards have on sales behavior. Unexpected rewards, while a small piece of the puzzle, are ones that can be particularly useful in these unusual times. Their use can also provide an opportunity for greater investment in and understanding of your employees. The more you observe how your team responds to sales rewards and motivation strategies, the more you’ll learn about how to successfully incentivize them.

Luke Kreitner is the vice president of sales at Extu, an incentive company that specializes in helping B2B businesses accelerate growth, increase sales, motivate channel partners and retain B2B customers.


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