As the most successful leaders know, you can’t run a thriving business a without the help of a great team. And that’s precisely why the idea of Employee Appreciation Day first came about—to thank employees for their hard work throughout the year and to show them just how much you value their efforts.
This unofficial holiday, which first began in 1995, is celebrated on the first Friday in March, and this year, Employee Appreciation Day falls on Monday, March 2nd, 2020.
A study by behavioral economist Dan Ariely claims it’d be in your best interest to go with the latter. In Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Ariely reveals how the promise of pizza can make employees more productive at work.
Here’s how the study went. Ariely’s participants consisted of factory workers who assemble computer chips at Intel in Israel. He divided the workers into four groups. One group was promised vouchers for free pizza after a productive workweek, another was promised compliments (like an encouraging text from the boss that said “Well done!”), the third group was promised a cash bonus of around $30 and the last group was promised nothing, serving as the control group.
The results were surprising. The group that was promised pizza increased productivity by 6.7 percent compared to the control group. Those to be showered with simple compliments were a close second with a 6.6 percent increase in productivity. And the cold, hard cash? That incentive only increased productivity by 4.9 percent. What’s even more unexpected is that the group that was promised money had a rapid decrease in productivity over the week, while productivity of the other groups dropped more slowly.
It’s puzzling to think of why people might perform better with the thought of pizza in mind. One reason could be the amount of money offered. Money is money, but $30 is just $30. Bump it up to $50 and you’re getting somewhere. Maybe the factory workers decided that being $30 richer wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things. For the pizza people, the reward of a hot meal full of cheesy goodness surely sounded appealing.
What the study shows is that perhaps, employees value acts of appreciation over extra spending money, the same way you might value a friend treating you to lunch on your birthday instead of receiving a hastily sent e-gift card. And happy employees who feel appreciated are more productive.
Jack Skeen, Ph.D., leadership coach and co-author of the professional development book The Circle Blueprint, provides this explanation: “It’s easy to think that your boss just sees you as a part of the machinery. Little gestures such as providing a slice of pizza help an employee to feel seen, humanized, and valuable. Food is the great equalizer. It comforts us and bonds us, not to mention helps provide energy and sustenance. This could explain why workers were more motivated by a slice of pizza than the promise of a bonus.”
This may be welcome news for small business owners who can’t gift every one of their hard-working employees a holiday bonus, but can part with a few bucks for an order from Papa John’s. The point is for employers to find ways to show they care about employees as people, not just as workers.
Skeen has other suggestions to keep employees motivated throughout the year, like celebrating yearly work anniversaries, throwing a breakfast party with coffee and bagels or “encouraging people to use all their vacation days or to stay home if they don’t feel well.”
What does seem to work is ensuring employees are self-motivated, or have intrinsic motivation. This can come from being given positive recognition, being challenged to accomplish new tasks, having choices over what to do and working with and helping others.
Kjerulf writes, “So rather than trying to bribe people to want things using pizzas and promotions, managers should help their people to discover meaning and develop skills at work.”