The dark side of reward and recognition

This week was a big one in our household. Aside from the usual packing lunches, hostage negotiations over what the kids have for breakfast, and slamming down a travel mug of lukewarm coffee and soggy toast stuck on the freeway, we had the school carols event and awards ceremony for our two girls Tamika (9) and Amele (6).

(Tamika above with the school principal who we’re delighted with!)

This year we saw our eldest Tamika get the prestigious Prinicpal’s award – this is the fourth consecutive year Tamika has taken out the award and as parents its a very proud moment – with even Facebook admins getting sick of the photos and brag posts! We appreciate the school’s reward and achievement system and applaud their focus on high performance. There was, however a ‘side effect’ to this form of reward and recognition we felt this year for the first time which was much more widespread than originally thought.

Amelie, our youngest was distraught and could not comprehend why her sister was getting an award and she wasn’t. They both tried very hard, both got rave reviews from their teachers and reports were glowing that much you could light up a room for hours with them. After hearing about it Amelie looks at both my wife and I and says “mummy, daddy, I work so hard yet I didn’t get an award, am I not good enough?”. We showed Amelie her results and positive, reinforcing discussions were had to get her understanding the situation better….

This is what I call the dark side of reward and recognition: where we applaud and salute those who excel and forget those who are working towards it which causes disconnect and can set people back on their pursuit of high performance. After speaking to so many parents, our situation was very common; and speaking to people in my business network about it, I was surprised to find many recall a work experience where the same people got the awards and recognition, or where only the top of the list got the praise.

Just so we’re clear, I do not endorse celebrating mediocrity, but I do believe in rewarding and recognising high achievers AND those working towards it. The notion of awards, bonuses and incentives can derail many for sake of recognising one if not done properly and in a considered way.

So, with this month being the peak for awards, performance reviews, bonus payments and recognition dished out, remember the following handy tips to keep everyone energised, inspired and moving forward:

1. When recognising high performers, ensure you have a strategy in place that reinforces and acknowledges the hard work being done by others who are inspired to improve and better themselves day by day. There’s many personal, cost effective and flexible ways to do this.

2. Ensure your reward and recognition strategy includes recognising people who have been progressively improving or demonstrating the right values and behaviours in getting their performance from good to great.

3. Think about a ‘pay it forward’ to accompany the rewards for the high achievers: encourage them to partner or buddy with someone else in the organisation or team that could benefit from working with them, learning about best practices and helping others find inspiration to perform at their level.

4. Avoid diluting the high performer limelight too much – ensure there is the right amount of airtime given to those who have worked hard so they party hard. Keep them motivated.

5. Don’t celebrate anything not worth celebrating – supporting and recognising those improving on the path to high performance does not mean rewarding mediocrity. It has to be true improvement, specific beahaviours used, or real progress achieved.

Do you have any strategies you’ve used in the past? Agree or disagree on the above? Would love to know your thoughts!

Until next time, Jonathan.

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