Awards and recognition programs for teammates and employees are a critically important aspect of an organization’s culture. But it’s not difficult for them to have the opposite intended effect, by recognizing employees who don’t deserve it, failing to recognize those who do, or losing the sincerity of the recognition altogether — that is, going through the motions of an awards program because that’s what all companies are supposed to do, and thus making the recognition seem manufactured and having no soul. It conjures images of Michael Scott at Dunder Mifflin.
My early professional upbringing in the Air Force sensitized me to the pros and cons of an awards program — the Air Force is awash in various forms of recognition, the most obvious being medals and ribbons for achievement and heroism. They take the notion of recognition very seriously. One might think that the sheer number of medals and other awards might diminish their individual effectiveness and sincerity, but the vast majority of the time, that’s not the case. So how does the Air Force — and other military branches — pull this off with success, balancing all of these issues?
Below are the principles and philosophies of recognition programs that I hold dear to heart, based on what I’ve experienced personally and observed secondhand — starting in the Air Force, and then the civilian corporate world. I communicate these principles on a regular basis to the organizations that I’m lucky enough to lead, reminding them that no recognition program is perfect, but recognition itself is critically important to the basic human needs of feeling appreciated and respected.
- “Praise in public, criticize in private” is one of the oldest and wisest pearls of leadership wisdom; 99 percent of the time it is a great rule of thumb. But every once in a while, praising in private is more appropriate, so be aware and apply that when needed.
- The praise and recognition should be commensurate with the achievement. You can’t give a Medal of Honor to everyone. If you had fireworks every day, the 4th of July would be just another day.
- No recognition program is perfect. Some folks will get more than they deserve and some folks will get less than they deserve. But you can’t starve a good recognition program for lack of a perfect one.
- In recognition of the imperfections and fallibility, the best thing to do when you receive praise and recognition is to pass it on to others and acknowledge them. Rarely, if ever, will you achieve something entirely upon your own.
- You will, at some time, be overlooked when the recognition train goes by and you will feel slighted. That’s ok. It’s human nature. It happens to all of us. When that does happen, the important thing to remember is this: It’s ok to wish more for yourself. It is not ok to wish less for someone else. There’s a big difference.
Quite often in life, it’s difficult to find the perfect balance in a given situation. Finding the perfect balance between too much recognition and too little can also be illusive. My guiding philosophy in these situations is to err towards the side of the better mistake. In this case, I think it’s better to err towards too much recognition, rather than too little, being careful not to award everyone a Medal of Honor.