Motivating Sales Teams with Powerful Incentive Psychology

The element of surprise is incredibly effective when it comes to motivating sales employees. And it’s not just because surprise incentives are fun. Scientific studies have shown that unexpected rewards tap into parts of the brain connected to learning and motivation. So how can you use this fact to your advantage in your sales incentive program? Let’s take a look at ways you can use surprise as a powerful sales motivation strategy.

First of all, let’s define what we mean by “unexpected rewards.”

ways to motivate salespeople with pyschology

No, we don’t mean just walking up to sales employees and handing them a gift for no reason. For the purposes of this article, “unexpected rewards” are incentive rewards salespeople earn by displaying behaviors that drive your sales goals and align with your company culture. These behaviors could range from quick thinking to close a serendipitous deal or going above the call of duty to help out the team or a colleague.

What makes unexpected rewards so effective?

It’s been well known in the behavioral psychology field for many years that animal brains respond well to unexpected rewards. In famous experiments on mice, psychologist B.F. Skinner observed that, when he tested mice’s behavior response to rewards, random rewards 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.

Your brain loves rewards-whether you like it or not

Why do we insist on “just one more level”? Nir Eyal explains in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In the 1940s, two researchers named James Olds and Peter Milner accidentally uncovered some peculiar properties of a special area of the brain.

More recent studies have revealed that humans have similar reactions to surprise rewards. A pleasure center of the brain called the nucleus accumbens is much more active when study subjects receive unpredictable patterns of rewards, regardless of the subjects’ personal preferences for rewards. (Source:

Pleasure isn’t the only part of the brain that perks up when unexpected rewards are involved. An unexpected reward tells the brain to pay attention because there’s important information associated with the reward outcome.

In theories of basic learning, this degree of unexpectedness or surprise is important because it represents the new, unforeseen information that the brain must somehow incorporate into its model of “what happens next.”

Scientists Measure ‘Unexpected Reward’ Response in Humans

Using implanted electrodes, researchers for the first time have made real-time measurements of human brain cells’ responses to a fundamental learning signal.

In short, surprise incentive rewards are so powerful because they’re universal. They’re chemical. They transcend gender, age, preference, job title, etc. You can use them as a tool of instant engagement to make the reward experience more meaningful, motivating sales teams more effectively.

OK, interesting, but how can you use this information specifically in motivating sales teams?

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:

There’s a whole world of interesting elements to motivation psychology and the impact that rewards have on how people think, feel and act. Unexpected rewards are just a small piece of the picture, but—we think—an interesting one. The more you observe how your team responds to sales rewards and motivation strategies, the more you’ll learn about how to incentivize them.