Reward for Exceptional Performance
Not everyone is special
By Shawn Doyle, CSP
Date Published: 5/1/2014


In the past, I worked for a company when I had a remarkable year in terms of performance. When I had my year-end review, my boss who was doing my review gave me exceptional numbers, in fact probably the highest that I had ever seen with that company. However, after my review was complete, the company gave me a somewhat standard increase in compensation. I was insulted by this approach. My boss had just told me that I was an exceptional performer, but I was getting what I considered to be a very pedestrian increase. This didn’t make any sense. If you have made an exceptional performance by the company’s own admission, why can’t it be rewarded accordingly? I had a lengthy discussion with my manager about this remarkably confusing and frustrating concept, and his reply was, “Well, you should still feel lucky that you actually got one of the highest raises in the company. Most people this year are only getting 2 to 3 percent raises, and you got 5 percent.” This did not make me feel better. 

I believe that you can lead a team where exceptional performance is rewarded. So what can you do as a leader to create a reward structure? Yes, there are laws that you have to follow in each state and country, but the innovative and creative manager finds ways to reward exceptional performance. 

Here are 5 tips to help ensure that you are rewarding your best so that they remain the productive backbone of your organization:

1. Treat everyone differently: When you know your employees well, when you know what motivates them, when you know what spins their wheels, then you have the ability to customize your approach to each employee. Let’s say you know that one of your employees’ key motivators is time off. Let’s also assume that there is a week the employee works lots of hours, works hard, and has exceptional results. Imagine what would happen if you walked into that employee’s office on Friday afternoon at two o’clock and said, “Thank you for all your hard work this week. As a reward, I would like you to go home early today.” Obviously, this would have a positive impact on the employee. First, there would be the great sense of accomplishment that comes with being in the car on a Friday afternoon leaving work early. Then the employee would get to explain the reward to surprised family members at home. The secret to this approach is knowing what motivates each employee. We have to figure out which approach works to customize the incentive. 

2. Have a reward plan: When I talk to people in leadership roles and ask them whether they have a reward plan, they usually ask, “What do you mean by a reward plan?” My response to that question is, “What elements are you putting into place this year in terms of budget and thought as to how you’re going to reward your individual employees over, above, and beyond their annual raise in compensation?” The answer, of course, in 99 percent of the cases, is that the leaders have never even given it a thought. I recommend that at the beginning of each year as part of your planning process you develop a short-term, mid-term, and long-term plan for individually rewarding employees. Obviously, this has to go into the budget. If you’re going to hand out movie passes to an employee, those movie passes have to be paid out of some budget line. So think about what you can do to reward your team members for exceptional performances, and put a plan in place.

3. Be creative: Try to figure out how you can be creative when it comes to rewards. Here is a list of rewards you might want to consider:

• magazine subscriptions

• movie or theater tickets

• bonus time off

• money in cash

• small gifts

• concert tickets

• a company car

• increased privileges (e.g., a better parking space)

• lunch with the boss

• an afternoon boat cruise

• gift certificates


You get the idea. You’re only limited by your creativity, and as you can see from the list above, the rewards don’t necessarily have to be expensive; they just have to be unique. Use the element of surprise, because often the element of surprise sweetens and heightens the experience of being rewarded for an exceptional performance. 

4. Think of categories: When you think about rewarding for exceptional performances, try to think of categories for the performance itself. You can reward for an individual performance, for a group performance, for meeting specific group goals within the team, or for a team performance. Each of these categories can have an impact on the individual and the group.

5. Don’t reward for a mediocre performance: I have seen leaders who have gotten used to rewarding for average performances. When a project is done and the results are just OK, employees are still rewarded as if the results had been exceptional. This is a huge strategic error. You must only reward for a performance when it is truly exceptional—not normal, average, or standard. Keep in mind that there are mechanisms in place for rewarding standard work. What we’re talking about is rewarding for exceptional performances, which should mean just that: exceptional. So when you consider rewarding for an outstanding performance, stop to think about whether it is truly exceptional. If you are in doubt, it is probably not.


So these are the elements you definitely need to consider when it comes to rewarding for exceptional performances. I can tell you that all the research shows that employees do not leave companies, they leave managers. I believe that one of the key reasons employees leave managers is that they feel under-appreciated and under acknowledged, and overall don’t feel that their efforts are noticed. This is somewhat ironic, because usually, once superstars decide to leave companies, executives scramble around, making counteroffers in order to get them to stay. In essence, it’s almost like planting a crop. When you concentrate on rewarding exceptional performances, you’re planting the seeds of satisfaction and the seeds of retention, and you’re building a high level of morale among the team.


Shawn Doyle, CSP, ( is the president of new Light Learning and Development a company that specializes in leadership development.       


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