As a child I remember clearly the painstaking agony of waiting for Christmas Day to arrive. A true child of the 1980’s, materialism was my middle name and Christmas gifts were my game(s). Of course in comparison to many of my peers’ parental units, my mother and father were quite strategic in their approach to gift allocation. My brother and I might receive a small item here or there over the course of the year, but the windfall clearly came at Christmas, and only then because it was Santa doing the buying. Much like the iconic Ralphie, the anticipation would begin to build just after Thanksgiving until it reached a fever pitch during a sleepless Christmas Eve. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it was over. And the long wait would begin again.
Fast-forward approximately 30 years. In February, calls begin between my father, my brother, and myself making the necessary prearrangements for the annual summer vacation. Dates must be set, accommodations secured, transportation and logistics put in place. Every detail must be planned, right down to the appropriate tee times and the color scheme for the family photo. And, as August rolls around, I once again I feel the tinge of anticipation as it builds right up until we set sail in our very own Family Truckster. But of course, just as in the days of my youth, the moment I have been pining for slips through fingers all too quickly and I am left dreaming of the next family vacation.
A team of researchers in the Netherlands published a study where they examined the effects of vacations on Dutch participants’ happiness. But wait, aren’t European workers always on vacation? That is another topic for another blog. The researchers found that very few participants reported any increased happiness following their vacations, and for those lucky few, the boost of happiness only lasted about two weeks post vacation. However, the anticipation of the vacation that was yet to come boosted happiness for up to eight weeks prior to the actual event.
This study illustrates an important point, that, while not all that surprising, is often lost when companies try to increase worker morale, satisfaction, and even performance. Improvements in these areas are not the result of workers gaining the carrots that are dangled so carefully in front of them, but rather because of the anticipation or, in motivational jargon, the expectancy, that great effort and planning will lead to the attainment of these valuable outcomes. You see, much like vacations and Christmas mornings, the energy and excitement that occurs prior to reaching your destination disappears quickly once the ride is over.
So what then, are companies and managers to do if they wish to keep their workers satisfied and energized? First, as the Dutch so eloquently put it, “take more trips per year”. Employees need to be constantly striving in anticipation for some event or reward, but those events cannot be too far in the distance or the anticipation is lost. After all, it is a long time from December 26th 2011 to December 25th 2012 and the prospect of being good for such a long period is enough to take any child from giddy anticipation to helplessness and despair. Second, just as one event is passing we must have another goal in our sights. The “post-holiday blues” are in part due to the long dark winter months seen looming on the horizon. Some managers, in an effort to “give their employees some down time”, rob them of meaningful work. You don’t have to be a hard taskmaster, but you should always have meaningful milestones and rewards that employees are trying to reach. Third, equip employees with the belief that they CAN reach the destination. Anticipation exists because an individual truly believes that the outcome they are seeking will, in fact, come to pass. Sometimes this requires improving the self-efficacy of the individual along the way. Lastly, make sure the “vacation” doesn’t punish the employee. If you ever returned from vacation to find that you now have twice as much work as when you left, you know this can certainly temper excitement over the next vacation. Rewards must truly be desirable and not contaminated with adverse consequences.
So there you have it, the “keys” to leveraging anticipation at work. In case you were wondering I have just returned from a little vacation myself. My intent was to write this piece prior to leaving, but fortunately for me the anticipation was just too great.