On Managing

May 7, 1999 

“She’s Just Too Good to Be True, But She Is”: Recognition Ceremonies and Other Motivational Rituals.


John Lubans

Of 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.

But. 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!

What happened? Are there really no more outstanding employees?

Why do well-intentioned recognition efforts like this run out of steam?

The 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.

And, the reasoning goes, even if our efforts don’t always work quite like we hope, they do little harm.

Well, 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 elusive.

I’ve 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”. 

This 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.

CASE: The Crabs in the Bucket Syndrome*

One 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.

When 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.

Joe 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!

What do you, as the supervisor, do?

• Ignore this as "sour grapes" that will dissipate      eventually?

• Explain why Joe was promoted to anyone that asks?

• Put this matter on the agenda for the next unit meeting      and air the matter.

*Note: 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.

Feedback welcome: John_Lubans@valkyrie.oit.duke.edu.

Recognition as organizational artifact:

There are at least three categories of recognition:

Individual, tangible:

Cash 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.

Individual, intangible:

Picture-on-the-wall, 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.


Fully 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.

Frederick 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”.

“Dissatisfiers” 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.

No 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.

Illustrative 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 job satisfaction.

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?

My theory is that when we institutionalize recognition it becomes an administrative practice, a potential dissatisfier.

Clues in failure and success:

Scene 1: 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.

The 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.

Administrative involvement was noticeably absent.

Scene 2: 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.

The 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.

Much 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.

If you must....

You say your organization just has to have an RP? Then here are some pointers.

Communicate broadly, with clarity and persistence, all of the following:

Purpose 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.

The 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.

Why a team or person is getting the recognition. No      platitudes. If inflated rhetoric is necessary to justify      an award, think again.

And, for the Recognition Program (RP), assure there is: 

Frequent turnover on the recognition committee. This may help assure new ideas and freshness in attitudes.

A moratorium on any award when it begins to tire - usually after the second time it is given. My working ratio is 500:1.

It 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.

By 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 supportable.

Spontaneity 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.

Assess 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?

If 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 made.

The “task achieved” that’s being recognized must benefit a sizable part of the organization. If not, then make specialized awards or don’t bother.

Last words:

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.

The 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.


Frederick Herzberg, “The Motivation-Hygiene Concept and Problems of Manpower”, Personnel Admininstration, January-February, 1964.