Just Too Good to Be True, But She Is”:
Recognition Ceremonies and Other Motivational Rituals.
late, I’ve been noticing the Employee-of-the-Month displays at
businesses like hotels and grocery stores. Usually, what I see is a bank
of color photos of the winners or shiny brass name plates pinned to a
polished walnut backboard or a choice, reserved parking spot.
what really stands out are the frequent gaps in the displays: it’s
June and the last Employee-of-the-Month (EoM) was for February. When you
look close at the brass plates, you realize that the most recent EoM is
from the previous year!
happened? Are there really no more outstanding employees?
Why do well-intentioned recognition efforts like this run out of steam?
theory behind a recognition program is that it is unarguably good for an
organization to recognize its staff. Recognition by one’s peers
fertilizes genuine growth for the individual.
the reasoning goes, even if our efforts don’t always work quite like
we hope, they do little harm.
not really. They are surprisingly costly in time to administer, the
dissatisfaction (between few “winners” and many “losers”) can be
wide-spread, and the happiness (job satisfaction) they endow may be
worked in libraries with recognition ceremonies ranging from elaborately
orchestrated to none. My productivity and creativity (or anyone
else’s, it seems) did not depend on the recognition program - for me,
supportive relationships matter the most. Yet, since many of us work in
large organizations, we are encouraged by HR departments and frequently
our own staff to develop formal recognition systems. It is often the
prescribed medicine for a diagnosis of “low morale”.
column will reflect on why managers put their faith and backing into
recognition systems. And, I will try to derive some learnings from my
experiences in recognition efforts that worked and those that did not.
The Crabs in the Bucket Syndrome*
of your unit's staff (Joe) has realized, at long last, a much desired
reclassification of his position to a higher pay level. You are pleased
with this since you’ve been supportive of Joe's request for a
reclassification because you knew he was handling new and more
complicated responsibilities over the last two years. Given the changes
in Joe's job description, several requiring a high level of
technological savvy, a reclass was in order.
you publicly recognize Joe's reclass at one of your regular meetings
with the 9 staff in your unit, you are surprised by their low-key
response to Joe's good fortune. Your surprise turns to dismay, when 3
individual members come to you and complain, bitterly, in private that
Joe is not deserving of the reclass, nor does his work differ that much
from what others are doing in the unit. It is, they are convinced,
unfair for one to be singled out for advancement. They want to see
Joe’s job description.
talks with you in private and says he is now getting the cold shoulder
from his colleagues and wishes he had never gotten the reclass!
do you, as the supervisor, do?
Ignore this as "sour grapes" that will dissipate
Explain why Joe was promoted to anyone that asks?
Put this matter on the agenda for the next unit meeting
and air the matter.
Coastal Tar Heels will tell you that a crab that just might get away to
freedom over the top of the bucket is inevitably pulled back by those
crabs lower down in the bucket.
as organizational artifact:
are at least three categories of recognition:
bonuses, parking spaces, paid days off, prize award for best
performance, paid lunch on your own, and a raft of things like pen
knives, clocks, necklaces, watches, etc.
write-up in library newsletter, one-on- one lunch with the boss (yes,
some think this is a reward!) and public announcements (with
certificates signed by the corporate leader) for years of service.
or partially paid lunches, dinners, picnics, sometimes including staff
produced lampoons of the past year’s highs and lows. Often longevity
is recognized at large staff meetings and/or at banquets.
Herzberg’s research on what makes workers happy and miserable gives
some insights. He assigns a high value to “recognition for task
achievement” as a “job satisfier” or motivator, along with some
others like “intrinsic interest in the work”, and “advancement”.
include “company policy and administrative practices” and “working
conditions”. The conundrum in Herzberg’s findings is that while good company policy and working conditions do limit dissatisfaction,
they do not result in job satisfaction.
matter how hard you try to get the air conditioning just right or work
towards making parking affordable and
convenient, the best you can expect is a lessening
of dissatisfaction. Fine tuning the environment in which one works is not the same as improving what one does.
of this is the frequent criticism I have heard about the venue of the
library’s recognition programs. Better financed organizational units
rent out the ballroom at the five star hotel while the library has its
recognition potluck in the staff lounge! This is a classic dissatisfier
- changing the venue will decrease the complaints,
but it will not impact true
While looking at Herzberg’s bi-polar chart of satisfiers and dissatisfiers I was struck that recognition (second only to achievement as a positive motivator) has the largest negative value assigned to any of the motivators. What causes this duality?
theory is that when we institutionalize recognition it becomes an
administrative practice, a potential dissatisfier.
in failure and success:
Two staff in technical services were singled out for recognition by
their colleagues. The two had worked visibly and assiduously for the
past several months on assuring a swap-out of computer hardware and
software used by each of the 80 plus staff.
spontaneous celebration occurred shortly after much of the work was done
and systems were up and running. Most of the installation, while
complicated and tied to production systems, was nearly flawless!
Everyone benefited and everyone
understood. In some ways the celebration party was as much for the staff
as it was for those being rewarded. It was a milestone event, marking a
transition shared by all 80 staff.
involvement was noticeably absent.
It is the 11th annual staff recognition banquet. The winner of the best
performer of the year, a cash bonus, is about to be announced, sometime
during dessert. The award, named after a highly esteemed librarian, is
meant to be a genuine honor. The awards committee solicits nominations
and prepares a recommendation for approval by the library director.
chair of the awards committee reads a glowing and lengthy rationale for
this year’s winner which is met by muted, hardly jubilant, applause.
The moment feels anti-climatic.
consternation among the staff follows for several days. They are
disgruntled about the winner, especially since he is someone reputed to
blame mistakes on staff efforts outside his specialized area of
responsibility. Most of the staff, regardless of the award’s eulogical
write-up, remain ignorant of what this person actually does. Their
perception is that someone “part of the problem and not the
solution” has just been rewarded.
say your organization just has to have an RP? Then here are some
broadly, with clarity and persistence, all of the following:
of the award.
Make it significant and bolster its integrity. If it is for longevity or
fewest sick days used, consider abandoning the formal recognition.
Resist the award’s becoming a spoil of political battles.
nomination process and who has access.
Requirements should not be weighed in favor of staff who work with users
or technology. That is their job; there has to be something more
deserving of recognition than doing a good job with the public or by
converting manual processes to computer based ones.
a team or person is getting the recognition. No
platitudes. If inflated rhetoric is necessary to justify
an award, think again.
for the Recognition Program (RP), assure there is:
Frequent turnover on the recognition committee. This may help assure new ideas and freshness in attitudes.
moratorium on any award when it begins to tire - usually after the
second time it is given. My working ratio is 500:1.
derives from an unscientific analysis taking into account statistical
variation in performance, the fact that most people (85%) are doing a
good job and when they fail or
exceed extraordinarily, it is often the result of systems or situations
beyond their control.
500:1 I mean that for every 500 staff only one genuine and heartfelt
award can be supported by the organization under normal
conditions. So, if your organization numbers one hundred people, an
award once every five years is
is essential for increasing organizational energy and avoiding
somnolescence. Every award has yawn potential. I know of an
organization-wide recognition dinner that costs at least $50,000. Many
(90% of the several hundred participants) would be happy to see it come
to end, but the built-up inertia repels reform. Change efforts bounce
off the solid facade of this doddering annual tradition.
your RP from time to time; not with a questionnaire but with selected
conversations by committee members with staff. Managers should ask who
and what are we recognizing?
What is the message we are sending? If recognition is usually of
individuals and teams that do not rock the boat, persons and groups that
“go along to get along” that is what you are going to get. Ask
pointedly, What has the recognition program done for management lately?
you want to promote contrarian views, to maintain an environment
that’s safe for making unintended mistakes, celebrate the best
questions asked (e.g. Why are we doing this?), and the biggest mistakes
“task achieved” that’s being recognized must benefit a sizable
part of the organization. If not, then make specialized awards or
It is probably best to avoid a formal full blown RP - one that is sure to sag under its predictability and incremental fatigue. There are few better sources for nourishing staff cynicism than recognition ceremonies that have become routine and tiresome. When recognition committee members and staff have to be flogged with repeated appeals for monthly recommendations, that’s a sign to move on.
best recognition is when we pay attention to each other and give
frequent pats on the back and constructive feedback. If there is
spontaneous recognition for task achievement, two things happen: the
boss has to be more aware of what is happening, and the employee’s
thinking (based on the self improvement recognition promotes) can help
get the job done better.
Herzberg, “The Motivation-Hygiene Concept and Problems of Manpower”,
Personnel Admininstration, January-February, 1964.