The Power of Surprise

You possess a super power that you may not even be aware of.

It’s the power of surprise.

Most of us know the role that rewards play in driving motivation. The prospect of a paycheck or even public praise or recognition is what keeps many of us going.

These things activate the reward system in our brains, a system that is powered by the neurochemical dopamine.

But rewards can have diminishing returns. The second paycheck is seldom as exciting as the first one, and the public recognition that once spurred motivation can gradually become so routine that it no longer retains its original effect.

So what’s the solution?


Like most neurochemicals, dopamine serves multiple functions in our brains. Although it’s activated by the expectation of rewards, it’s also released at the detection of novelty. 

Anything that is new or unexpected can trigger a burst of dopamine. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “Pay attention! This is something we haven’t encountered before.”

And when that new thing turns out to a good thing — such as an unanticipated honor or an unexpected bonus — that burst of dopamine can feel really, really good!

From a managerial perspective, understanding more about how dopamine works can inform the way you interact with your employees. Although you should retain scheduled bonuses, set some money aside for spot bonuses that you can reward on the spur of the moment to employees who turn in especially good work. Also, keep in mind that small gifts can have a powerful effect that far outstrips their monetary value. An employee who took for granted her annual bonus may have never forgotten that time that you surprised her with a pair of tickets so that she and her husband could attend the symphony.