Is Your Award Program Fixing a Problem or Creating One?

Celebrating employees’ work is always a good thing, but many organizations think of awards narrowly. It’s time for a broader approach.

Awarding employees: So important to do, so many ways to do it wrong.

It’s practically accepted wisdom that compensation alone is not going to improve an employee’s morale, or even in itself encourage people to stick around. That’s the logic behind awards programs, from employee-of-the-month plaques to more sophisticated public-recognition events. But awards have their issues too—the recipient may not want the recognition, and it can risk creating a hierarchy of people who are “stars” and those who aren’t.

That’s one conclusion that Hilary Pennington, a vice president at the Ford Foundation, draws in a recent piece at the Stanford Social Innovation Review,Why Rewarding Leaders Might Hurt Collaboration.” “Awards single out the individual leader and lift them up as exceptional,” Pennington writes. “But for leaders who are trying to build collective power or mobilize groups of people, this can be problematic—and in some cases, destructive…. Distinguishing one person’s singular contributions in leading a movement can be harmful to the overall cause, because it can weaken the morale of the team. It can also cause admirers to mistake individual recognition for impact, not realizing what it takes to sustain a movement beyond an individual charismatic leader.”

Pennington is writing about a particular kind of awardee—somebody who is recognized for their leadership in the charitable nonprofit space. But the problem exists in all sorts of organizations. Awards that just anoint “stars” in an organization can alienate other people. Awards that the recipient doesn’t particularly want can make staff uncomfortable.

Distinguishing one person’s singular contributions in leading a movement can be harmful to the overall cause.

This criticism has its skeptics, no question. If you don’t like seeing your colleagues getting publicly rewarded, the thinking goes, suck it up and be the kind of performer who’s rewarded too. I’m fine with the argument that others’ success can be motivating; the problem is with the assumption that it can always do so, or that it’s one of the few things outside of a raise that can be motivating.

The title of a blog post by leadership expert Paul White gets at the problem: “Not Everyone Appreciates Your Kind of Appreciation.” When compelled to come up with ways to reward their employees, White argues, leaders often default to the kind of rewards they themselves would appreciate, which may not be a good fit for the people you’re trying to support. “For many introverts, going to a ‘Staff Appreciation Dinner’ is more like torture than a reward for doing a good job,” he writes. Compliments sometimes do the trick, but so does a bit of focus. “What I really would like is just a little time with his undivided attention, where I can talk to him without distractions,” one staff person says of his manager to White.

Awards are in some ways inherently hierarchical—a leader is making a decision to elevate some people over others. But they needn’t be divisive—indeed, recognizing the different kinds of ways people thrive in the workplace (or in your volunteer leadership groups), and supporting those people, might strengthen an organization. Pennington points to a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “Understanding New Power,” as an example of how more collaborative and less hierarchical systems increasingly hold sway in organizations. “New power norms place a special emphasis on collaboration, and not just as a way to get things done or as part of a mandated ‘consultation process,’” write Jeremy Heimans and Jeffrey Timms. “New power models, at their best, reinforce the human instinct to cooperate (rather than compete) by rewarding those who share their own ideas, spread those of others, or build on existing ideas to make them better.”

In other words, the award isn’t a gold star—the award is that your input is valued, that it’s recognized that you get to play.

What systems work best in your organization for supporting and awarding your employees and fellow leaders? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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