Can A Corporate Tchotchke Ever Beat A Bonus?

Research suggests people respond better to trinket rewards—look, origami!—than a token amount of cash.

Over at Slate, Ray Fisman writes an ode to the hard-earned trinket: the Tiffany picture frame Columbia Business School gave him, the insignia-laden Swiss Army Knife his wife scored from back in the day when she was a consultant. All these years later, they still can't give the businessy baubles away.

Turns out he's not alone in digging the weird little things we're given by faceless corporations that our livelihoods depend on: Believe it or not, a range of research suggests that workers vibe with the tchotchkes much more than the paltry sums they cost in the first place.

What's in a water bottle?

In one case study, three groups of German university students were tasked with cataloging library books. One group got a 7 euro bonus—equivalent to a 20 percent raise—for the day's work, while another received a 7 euro water bottle, and a control group didn't receive either. They then set upon their slog.

What happened? The cash-receivers didn't increase their productivity—guess that 7 euros didn't do it for them—but the water bottle team was 25 percent faster in data entry, meaning that those bottles more than paid for themselves.

The origami experiment

Then they extended the experiment into a cute sphere: for a second iteration, the rewards turned into 5 euro notes that found themselves folded into origami shirts; 2 euro coins got smiley faces. You can guess what made biggest impression and productivity reaction—those adorable origami shirts.

What's the lesson from all this? If the bonus you're giving slaving employees could be considered just a token, better to throw something thoughtful and cute their way rather than cash.

What's the worst (or is that best?) gift you've ever received from your boss? Let us know in the comments.

Good Job, Fella. Here’s a Water Bottle.

Drake Baer covers leadership for Fast Company. You can follow him on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Bruce Stockwell]

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