I saw an article in a local newspaper today, and as usual it got me to thinking. The article was about a high school that would not allow its National Honor Society members to wear their honor society sashes during their graduation commencement ceremonies. The school district decided that it did not want those graduating students who were not part of the honor society to feel excluded or lessened for not having been an honor society member.
Think about that for a moment.
Kids that excelled were not allowed to be recognized for excelling because of the way it might make those that did not excel feel.
Now I am sure that there are many twists and turns in this story that we have not been a part too. It is my understanding that the National Honor Society is viewed in some schools as more of a “club” due to its non-school requirements and activities. Even so, if only part of this story is true, what would happen in business if business was forced to behave in such a manner with those who excel?
Now before I delve too deeply into this topic from a business point of view, there probably are a few things that we need to remember. I think it is best for us all to remember that each and every business only wants the best, the brightest, the most gifted on their team. They have all implemented interview and selection criteria to make sure that no average person darkens their halls. They spare no expense in their never ending hunt for only the best talent.
Once each business has assembled their own veritable “Avengers” (the first one, where they save the world, not the second one where I’m not sure what they actually did…) slate of employees, they then require that each manager force fit them into a bell shaped distribution curve for their individual performance so that individual ratings and raises can be allocated appropriately.
Wait a minute. In some strange way that actually does sound a little like the high school in question.
Let’s get back to the topic and talk about recognition in business for a little bit. It is, or at least should be an integral part of any employee compensation or retention program. The problem is: How do you recognize those that have excelled without potentially demoralizing or alienating those that may not have done as well. I think that this can be an interesting question on several levels.
The first level is to make sure it is an organizationally acceptable practice to publically recognize individuals. All cultures have a tendency to impose their view of things on the world. I think in the US we are somewhat competitive, understand and accept the concept of individual recognition in a team oriented organization. There are other countries with similar views of things, as well as some that tend to take a little more “team” view of things as opposed to individual performance. Many of us look at it as a reason to work and strive that much harder in order to reap those individual gains.
This is particularly prevalent in many of the sales organizations. Sales incentives, sales rewards, sales trips and recognition are all part of the package. Many sales people, in addition to the compensation, see the opportunity to be recognized for excelling in front of their peers as one of the primary driving incentives for their work.
For the most part, this is how sales recognition works. There is a focus on achievement and those that excelled. There is minimal concern about the feelings of those that did not. All sales people are at the sales meetings. They all know if they achieved or not. If they did not attain the required threshold they had no expectation of being recognized in front of their peers. Their expectations were set long before the recognition was provided.
The advantage of sales in this sort of situation is that it is a very quantitative objective. You get the numbers or you don’t. If you get them, wear a nice suit when you walk on stage in front of your peers. If you don’t, try to sit toward the back in audience and remember it is bad form to make snide comments about those on stage.
However, that may not be the case in other locations or business disciplines. How do you recognize the best accountant? I mean really, how do you recognize them? Do they add their numbers that much better? This is where the recognition ideal starts to run into trouble. Just like the Russian judge in the ice skating competition that seems to have preordained the winners regardless of their performance, when you introduce a human factor or “judgment” into the recognition algorithm you open it up for perceived issues and abuse.
When a recognition program moves away from a quantitative approach to valuation, it begins to move away from rewarding for what is actually getting done and starts to enter the realm of rewarding for how things are getting done. How things are said becomes more important than the content that is contained in the communication.
There is in essence now a question of who gets to go up on stage in front of their peers. Some accountants may feel slighted because they actually added more numbers correctly than the accountant that was selected to be recognized. Others may feel slighted because they were associated with subtraction functions and everybody knows that only the addition guys get all the recognition.
It is in an instance such as this that a recognition program can in fact become a disincentive to those that are not recognized. If there is something other than a pure performance based criteria there will always be the suspicion that the Russian judge had preselected the winner.
Another issue associated with recognition can be culture. In some cultures individuals like to be recognized for the contribution, but they may not want to be recognized publically in front of their peers for their contributions. Some cultures prefer a more individual based one-on-one recognition. A direct word from the leader or a personalized congratulatory note on a job well done can be preferred to taking a bow in front of one’s peers.
This again is a good way to avoid the perceived snub or demoralizing effect associated with those not receiving the recognition. A simple acknowledgement or a small token of appreciation from the business leadership without all the pomp and circumstance (that’s a high school graduation reference in case you missed it) can readily serve as way to recognize those that have excelled.
It’s no secret that recognition is an important aspect of business and team morale and satisfaction. If there are going to be public recognition programs they need to be as quantitative in nature as possible. If all participants are aware of the recognition criteria thresholds, then there usually cannot be any issues generated by those that are not recognized.
Regardless of how unbiased or expert management may feel it is, when any sort of “judgment” is injected into the recognition process there will be a segment of the business or team that will feel someone else may have been unfairly selected. This can result in a set of responses and behaviors that are contrary to the desired culture of inciting achievement.
In looking at recognition based rewards for those disciplines where it is possible to implement quantitative thresholds, a public recognition programs as part of the rewards function could be preferable. Everybody knows how they have done with respect to their objectives and there should be no hard feelings for those that know they did not perform as well as others.
For those disciplines where it may be difficult to solely gage performance quantitatively, it may be preferable to look at more individual based methods of recognition. Those that are selected for recognition can receive it directly and those that are not will not feel excluded or lessened for not receiving similar recognition.
Very much like the high school students at the graduation ceremony who won’t be feeling bad because there will not be the public differentiation between them and the National Honor Society graduates who were not allowed to wear their honor society sashes with their cap and gowns at the graduation ceremony.