04 Jun 2013  Working Papers

Prosocial Bonuses Increase Employee Satisfaction and Team Performance

Executive Summary — Designing effective incentive schemes is a central challenge for a wide range of organizations, from multinational corporations to academic departments. In pursuit of identifying the most effective strategies, organizations have devised an impressive variety of such bonuses, from fixed salaries to pay-per-performance, from commissions to end-of-year bonuses. In this paper, the authors suggest that the wide variety in such schemes masks a shared assumption: That the best way to motivate employees is to reward them with money that they then spend on themselves. The authors—Lalin Anik, Lara B. Aknin, Michael I. Norton, Elizabeth W. Dunn, and Jordi Quoidbach—propose an alternative means of incentivizing employees—what they term "prosocial bonuses"—in which organizations provide employees with bonuses used to engage in positive actions towards charities and coworkers, from donating money to remote countries to taking a coworker to lunch. The authors examine the impact of these prosocial bonuses on employee satisfaction and team performance, by reporting results from field experiments in settings ranging from bank employees in Australia to pharmaceutical sales representatives in Belgium to dodgeball teams in Canada. Overall, results suggest that a minor adjustment to employee bonuses—shifting the focus from the self to others—can produce measurable benefits for employees and organizations. Key concepts include:

  • When organizations give employees the opportunity to spend money on others—whether their coworkers or those in need—both the employees and the company can benefit, with increased happiness and job satisfaction and even improved team performance.
  • Prosocial bonuses can benefit both individuals and teams, on both psychological and "bottom line" indicators, in both the short and long-term.
  • Prosocial bonuses could backfire if companies introduce them as a replacement for more standard bonuses, rather than as an additional incentive.


Author Abstract

In two field studies, we explore the impact of providing employees and teammates with prosocial bonuses, a novel type of bonus spent on others rather than on oneself. In Experiment 1, we show that prosocial bonuses in the form of donations to charity lead to happier and more satisfied employees at an Australian bank. In Experiment 2, we show that prosocial bonuses in the form of expenditures on teammates lead to better performance in both pharmaceutical sales teams in Belgium and sports teams in Canada. These results suggest that a minor adjustment to employee bonuses-shifting the focus from the self to others-can produce measurable benefits for employees and organizations.

Paper Information