When Is the Best Time to Ask For a Raise?

Everybody seems to feel unappreciated these days. A lot of that stems from the tendency to comically overestimate our individual contributions to society, but there also may be a more scientific reason. In a new study Benjamin Converse and Ayelet Fishbach examine the connection between the appreciation felt toward a person, and that person’s instrumentality in helping to achieve a goal.

We propose that in social interactions, appreciation depends on the helper’s instrumentality: The more motivated one is to accomplish a goal and the more one perceives a potential helper as able to facilitate that goal, the more appreciation one will feel for that helper. Three experiments support this instrumentality-boost hypothesis by showing that beneficiaries feel more appreciation for their helpers while they are receiving help toward an ongoing task than after that task has been completed or after the helper has been deemed no longer instrumental. This holds for the positive side of appreciation (gratitude) and the negative side (indebtedness), and across a range of relationships (complete strangers, new partners, and friends). This pattern of appreciation is counterintuitive for helpers, resulting in a mismatch between the time courses of experienced and expected appreciation.

Appreciation toward a helper peaks while the helper is still seen as instrumental in facilitating the completion of a goal — that is, before the goal has been completed — however, helpers expect appreciation to be highest after the goal is completed. The mismatch between the actual time of maximum appreciation and the expected time of maximum appreciation can leave people feeling unappreciated.

What does this have to do with your next raise? The conventional wisdom says that when you ask for a raise you should have something big you recently completed to use as evidence of your value. However, the results of the study imply that you would be better off asking for a raise in the middle of a project because at that point you would still be instrumental in achieving the project’s goal. After the project is finished you are no longer instrumental in its success.

It would be fairly simple to run a lab experiment that tests how project-timelines influence salary negotiations. Alternatively, I think it would be more interesting to look at real life situations — for example, whether athletes who sign contract extensions (and who didn’t have an impending free agency) get relatively better deals when they sign them during the season rather than in the offseason, or if the press coverage of the extension is more favorable during the season.

The study also has some interesting electoral implications. At the margin, would a politician (e.g. Barack Obama) be helped if a key initiative (e.g. universal healthcare) was not a done deal? Would his base feel greater appreciation because they still see him as instrumental in bringing about the desired outcome (and not as a person who already made it happen?)
Converse, B., & Fishbach, A. (2012). Instrumentality Boosts Appreciation: Helpers Are More Appreciated While They Are Useful Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611433334


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