The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) performed a study to find what “top performing”[i] companies do differently than average companies. Based on everything we know about employee engagement, sales incentives, and channel loyalty, it’s not surprising to learn that they have a stronger belief in non-cash rewards and recognition and higher payouts. We’ll discuss these, and other components revealed in the study, that we think help organizations thrive. 

  1. I believe in the power of non-cash rewards and recognition
  2. I believe in consolidating disparate programs
  3. I believe higher payouts deliver higher returns
  4. I believe in program reach over exclusivity
  5. I believe in highly integrated communications

 1. I believe in the power of non-cash rewards and recognition

Perhaps it’s a mantra among executives at top-performing companies, “I believe in the power of non-cash rewards and recognition.” Or maybe just a mindset. One thing is clear, though: Top-performing companies believe that non-cash rewards and recognition are effective in many categories including recruitment, retention, and engagement. Not to mention, “top performing companies were also over 30% more likely to believe that their non-cash reward and recognition programs effectively influence behavior,” according to the IRF study.

Another IRF study found that, despite what most people think, when given the choice between a robust reward that aligns with their personal experiential preferences, employees often do not choose cash, especially for large awards.” And while “small awards do show a high preference for cash, 65 percent would select a non-cash award, if all other award experiential elements were optimal.”

If that doesn’t convince you, then maybe you’ll take the word of Dan Ariely, a researcher of behavioral economics. Ariely experimented with methods of motivating factory workers to be more productive. Of the four reward options offered: a cash bonus, a voucher for pizza, a thank you note, or no reward; the cash bonus performed the worst (making workers 13% less productive than those receiving no bonus at all). According to an article in Quartz, Ariely “recommends companies think about different rewards that show employers are interested in their workers’ long-term health and growth.”

With U.S. businesses spending $90 Billion on non-cash incentives annually, it’s clear this smart business strategy is helping organizations thrive through recruitment, retention, engagement, and beyond.

 2. I believe in consolidating disparate programs

What do these three have in common: Spring Cleaning, Trimming the Fat, and Organizing?

Answer: you purge all unnecessary items to make room for what matters.

Smart business leaders do this all the time. “How can I consolidate this?” “How can I optimize that?”

According to the IRF,Non-cash reward and recognition programs are run for many reasons to support a number of goals. In many instances, numerous programs are being executed in a single organization at a given time. While many top-performing companies (over 40%) said they had multiple programs running across the company which were designed and managed under a common purpose, top-performing companies were significantly more likely to have a single program for their entire company. They were over three times more likely than average organizations to report that they had a single sales program, 2.5 times more likely to report that they had a single program for channel partners, and 2.5 times more likely to report that they had a single program for employees across the entire company.”

Not only have we helped our clients do this, but we’ve gone through the same consolidation process with our own rewards and recognition program.

 3. I believe higher payouts deliver higher returns

Every company looks to do more with less. And wherever you can reduce costs, you’re better off, right? With many line item expenses, this may be true, but when it comes to the value organizations get out of non-cash rewards, top-performing companies know it’s worth spending more.

The research from IRF shows that a typical salesperson at a top-performing company can expect to earn 42% more in non-cash rewards than a salesperson at an average company. Similarly, channel participants earn about 55% more and employees can expect to earn 15% more in non-cash rewards than with average companies.

A sampling of our clients’ domestic and international group incentive travel programs in 2017 shows an average cost of $6,246 per person for the highest-performing salespeople and channel partners. The companies are among the top in their industries including retail, technology, automotive, and insurance, and they stay at the top by appreciating and rewarding the behaviors that lead to thriving organizations.

4. I believe in program reach over exclusivity

Best practices in rewards in recognition would tell you that optimal design is achieved when a balance between incentives and recognition is reached.  This can be explained with a simple bell curve. Applied correctly, the entire bell curve will continually move to the right as standards are set higher and performance increases.

 bell curve

The IRF reports that For many years, the focus on non-cash reward programs seemed to be on highlighting only the best of the best in the organization—the elite. That has changed in top performing companies. When asked whether their non-cash program design was structured with the goal of rewarding and recognizing the truly exceptional performers (exclusivity) or if it was structured with the goal of each participant receiving a recognition or reward in the program (reach), top performers were statistically more likely to say “reach” regardless of program type. While 56% of top-performing companies said they prioritize reach for both employee and sales programs, only 36% and 28% of average companies said so respectively.”

This shows that top-performing companies are listening to best practices and achieving the optimal balance between incentive and recognition to move their bell curve forward.

5. I believe in highly integrated communications

 “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” –  George Bernard Shaw

According to Lexus Nexus, workers discard 91% of work information without fully reading it. This can be a huge problem when you are trying to convey an important message. When you need behaviors to change; either to start doing something or to stop. That’s why integrated communication is so important and top companies understand that importance.

From the IRF research: “Integrating the rewards and recognitions into broader organization communications is key for top performing companies: 77% with employee programs said their programs were integrated into broader company communications, 78% said likewise for channel programs, and over 80% said likewise for sales programs. Conversely, only roughly 45% of averagely performing companies reported that their rewards and recognition programs were discussed in broader company communications.”

To find tips on engaging and integrated communications, check out our blog: Effective Communication Tips That Will Boost Engagement


Is it a coincidence that top-performing companies have these five beliefs in common? Or is it BECAUSE they operate this way they ARE top-performing companies? Either way, we know you want to be at the top of your industry, so what changes do you have to make to get there?

[i] Top-performing companies are defined as: $100 million or more in revenue, greater than 5% revenue growth or stock price growth, greater than 90% customer retention or greater than 90% customer satisfaction and greater than 5% new customer acquisition rate, and greater than 90% employee satisfaction ratings or greater than 90% employee retention and less than 10% top performing employee turnover year over year.

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