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What’s the Most Effective Way to Reward Top Performers?

This is an excerpt from our new ebook collaboration with BambooHR, “Your Total Rewards Questions: Answered.” The ebook is based on a panel discussion in which industry thought leaders offered their insights and tips on the biggest, most frequent concerns around total rewards. Get the full publication here.

You always want to show appreciation for — and continue to motivate — those employees who are contributing at exceptionally high levels. Here are a few ideas:

Appeal to Social and Identity Drivers

In a world in which many of us are sharing increasingly more about ourselves on social media platforms, we’ve all become, in a sense, storytellers. We curate images and craft narratives around the story we want to tell about our work and lives. We build profiles that we hope reflect our identities — and some of us like to identify as a “winner,” or maybe simply “successful.” Often, top performers will identify this way.

You can boost that narrative, and help your hard-charging employees boost it online (if that’s their thing), by offering rewards that denote status or accomplishment. A classic example is the leaderboard for sales organizations. That visual representation — for all to see — of how successful (or not) individuals are can light a fire under your top performers to maintain their rankings. It can also motivate employees who maybe aren’t performing at the highest levels to reach that top status: Seeing the end goal makes it feel achievable.

Note: This is not to suggest you can ignore monetary recognition. You absolutely should ensure there’s an equitable exchange of value. But for some, this kind of acknowledgement is as (or even more) important than pay. Again, it’s about knowing your employees’ value drivers.

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Demonstrate That You Recognize Their Extraordinary Value

One thing that seems generally true about humans is that in the absence of information, we’ll fill things in with our own (mostly negative) assumptions. Consider these findings from PayScale research that show when people are not told how their salary compares to the average, they’re likely to assume they’re not being paid fairly.


The solution? Be more transparent. Be able to show top performers your data that say they’re being compensated substantially more than the average employee in their position at your company. Related, it’s a common mistake to look at the mean (average) when you’re setting and comparing salaries, but you should really be looking at the median. A lot of times, the top 20 percent or so of employees in a function are providing the majority of the value, and that skews the average. Take a look at the median for a clearer picture.

Give Them Control Over Their Earning Potential

Using something like the OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) framework or just a simple goal-setting plan, allow employees to define or at least influence the quarterly (or whatever) goals for their role. When they have some control over what their objectives are and what they can do to reach them, you can be sure they’ll bring their best effort. With OKRs specifically, the employee even measures their own performance to determine the associated compensation. Talk about control!

Curious to know what recommendations the panel had for other common questions about total rewards? Grab the ebook today!

Tell Us What You Think

How do you reward your top performers? Share your strategies in the comments.

Image: Carl Cerstrand/Unsplash

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Walter J Donald, The Executive Network Inc. Recent comment authors
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Walter J Donald, The Executive Network Inc.
Walter J Donald, The Executive Network Inc.

Cassie, Congratulations on publishing your insightful and important research into employee’s “perceptions” about compensation. After 30 years of working with employers and employees, your data reinforces what my Executive Network colleagues and I have learned through hundreds of one-on-one interviews. Most people who are being well compensated financially for their efforts either don’t know that they are, or they don’t believe that they are. However, it doesn’t just apply to dollars. It also applies to “appreciation” and “recognition” of their workplace contributions. Many think that they are under-compensated AND under-appreciated. I would be very interested to see the real data… Read more »

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