Inject the Unexpected: Creating a Memorable Workday

It’s a beautifully peaceful day at the beach, waves occasionally reaching your sand-covered toes. A few clouds are scattered throughout the radiant blue sky, and a gentle breeze hits at all the right times. Your eyes are softly closed behind your sunglasses, but you open them when you hear a flock of seagulls flying overhead. As you glance around, a lady is exiting the water nearby, and you contemplate a quick dip yourself. As the lady leisurely towels herself dry, you notice that her skin is turquoise. After blinking a couple times to confirm what you’re seeing, you find yourself dumbfounded.

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, our brains are constantly using past experiences to predict the future. When something unfamiliar or unexpected happens, our brains are temporarily startled.  This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, though, because the discrepancy between expectation and reality leads to improved memory. Whether the incongruence is caused by novelty (something previously unencountered or unexperienced) or surprise (something unexpected), there’s a reason we’re more likely to remember things that are atypical. 

In 2010, a team of researchers published a study analyzing brain response to various stimuli via electroencephalogram (EEG), particularly in the hippocampus where memories are formed. The researchers exposed participants to pictures of faces and houses against red or green backgrounds. Participants primarily viewed items from one category, such as faces on a red background, but they occasionally saw an item from the other group (i.e. a house on a green background). The unexpected items resulted in better memory formation. Why? The hippocampus compares incoming information with stored knowledge and, when disparity exists, more dopamine is released. Increased dopamine results in stronger connections, which consequently leads to long-term memory storage.

Scott Young on Unsplash

Are you still wondering about the turquoise lady on the beach? Another study published in 2018 asked students to read nine everyday scenarios. Each of the brief stories concluded with one of three randomized outcomes: the normal (Her skin is no longer wet.), the known surprise (Her skin has turned red.), or the less-known surprise (Her skin is turquoise). The students later recalled as much as they could about each story, and the less-known outcome was considerably more memorable than the normal and known surprise outcomes. While dry skin and red skin were reasonable scenarios after toweling off at the beach, the turquoise skin was unexpected – so the hippocampus made special note of it.

If the unexpected leads to better memory formation, how can we apply this in the workplace? Think back to day one of each job on your résumé. There’s generally a basic formula for the first day at a new employer: become oriented with the break rooms and restrooms, get introduced to the team, receive your employee handbook and other training manuals, fill out assorted paperwork, twiddle your thumbs, etc. Are you bored yet?

Combine one part surprise/novelty with one part peak-end rule and bake until you’ve prepared a savory memory of onboarding. You could turn your boring employee handbook into a surprising and novel proselytization of your company culture – or even give out a gift at the end of the long, information-filled day. Not only would this up the memorability factor, but surprise can also make events more interesting and likeable: two words every employer would appreciate hearing about employee orientation.

“Organizations need to provide immersive experiences that let employees feel your values, not just be able to name them.”
-Novelty or Surprise?

Happy employees are the gift that keeps on giving, and they’re essential to recommending strong candidates. Does your company have a new-employee referral reward program? Enhance it by adding a surprise. Even if the additional reward is cheap, the surprise makes the entire experience more memorable and positive. By presenting something unique and unexpected alongside a familiar offering (cash), employees are more likely to remember the experience and take advantage again in the future.

Memory formation applies to on-the-job learning, too. A person can’t be surprised by information they already know – or, if they think they know it, they may zone out before they realize they don’t. When a person is truly learning, the information being absorbed is novel. Gallup states that the “best managers help their teams to recognize and embrace surprise as a key element of learning and growth.” By integrating novelty and surprise into day-to-day trainings and projects, companies can improve employee recall of the things that matter most.

While a trip to the beach would undoubtedly create a memorable first day at work, a few new experiences or unexpected events can make your workplace stand out from the rest.

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.


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