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Motivating Sales Teams with Powerful Incentive Psychology

The element of surprise is very effective in motivating sales teams. And it’s not just because surprise incentives are fun. Scientific studies show 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 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 deal or going above the call of duty to help 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

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.

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'” (The Dana Foundation).

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:

  • 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 whether they retain that learning. The reward tells the brain, “Hey, this is important! Pay attention,” and that’s a great time impart some crucial knowledge. During a training session, for example, you might call on randomly selected salespeople to regurgitate information and give them an unexpected incentive reward if they’re able to.

    “The human brain seems to be wired in a rational manner — tuned to learn whenever anything unexpected happens but not when things are predictable” (Science Daily).

  • Motivate sales employees with unexpected, on the spot rewards.

    Use unexpected on-the-spot sales incentive rewards to recognize sales employees when they go above and beyond. Not only are you leveraging the power of surprise, but you’re also solidifying the brain’s connection between action and reward. Immediately rewarding behavior has a much stronger impact—and is more likely to motivate salespeople to repeat that behavior—than delayed rewards.

    “The subjective value of reward decreases with increasing delay to its receipt” (Delay discount study).

  • Avoid “overjustifying” work with rewards.

    Many of today’s employers and managers are struggling with the idea that employees are more motivated by meaning. Millennials brought the concept into the limelight, but studies have found it’s not necessarily exclusive to them. Everyone is more motivated by meaning. And, if not used wisely expected rewards can sometimes detract meaning from work.

    Psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene conducted a study on children’s motivation to draw. The study found that children who were told beforehand they’d be rewarded for drawing were less inclined to draw—even when they already enjoyed drawing.

    Even children understand that, when they’re told they’ll be rewarded for something, it’s usually something they wouldn’t normally do or enjoy. When someone hears that they’ll get a reward for something they already like to do, they question whether they should enjoy that activity on its own, without the reward. A powerful influencer like unexpected rewards leads participants to find meaning and satisfaction in what they do. Don’t just try to lead them like Skinner’s lab rats to mechanically perform behaviors, but tie unexpected rewards to inner fulfillment. Sales employee rewards shouldn’t be about manipulating salespeople but making stronger connections between their jobs and their intrinsic motivations.

  • Make sure unexpected rewards are just an element of the bigger incentives strategy.

    Spontaneous rewards are excellent as a small sales incentive plan or an element of a larger program. But 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, bigger picture and purpose of the incentive program and how it ties into your company and sales goals.

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.