Friday, December 10, 2010

Awards: Beware of Committees Bearing Gifts

Ok, let’s admit it: we all like recognition. Awards and honors are nice. They’re especially rewarding when they come from outside the organization. Even more so when they come from a professional organization or sanctioning body.

Awards are a nice way to tell your story of hard work and accomplishment. They tell everyone within earshot that you are doing a good job. They sum up affirmation of what you thought – that you are doing a good job. It’s a nice addition to the discussion of your performance.

It is also a contributing factor to the evaluation of team efforts, such as putting the budget together or building an energy efficient building. Everybody wins when a meaningful award is won.

Mike Reagan, who was the Commissioner of Human Services in Iowa when I worked there, was the best I ever saw at leveraging awards and telling that story of our ‘award-winning services’. It played very well in the legislature – especially if we didn’t have any performance information! The impact of that story was emotional and impressionistic. Of course, the most persuasive arguments are those that both appeal to emotions and values -- and are informed with performance information.

But there’s a serious caution about awards - use them sparingly and thoughtfully once received. As much as awards can affirm good or even high performance, awards can also be used to justify and sustain the status quo.

Let’s think about the message being sent when awards are referenced in testimony or presentations. Is the message that “our efforts were recognized and here is what we are going to surpass that next time”? Or is the message that“our efforts were recognized, we are very good at what we do, we don’t need to change, now leave us alone”?

The first message presents a leadership style that is continuously improving performance. The second is a leadership style focused on defending our record and status quo. The trajectory of the first is that, well, the sky is the limit. The trajectory of the second is little or no progress past where we are today.

This is somewhat a personal style question for leaders. Do you wish to manage to the status quo or manage to the next leap forward in the performance of the organization?

Our observation is that, too often, the more often awards are referenced the more likely they are being used to defend the status quo.

A few questions to help you evaluate awards:

1.Does the award do anything for our customers?
2.Did the effort to achieve the award improve our performance?
3.How have we used the award, after receiving it, to improve performance?
4.What’s the long term benefit of receiving the award?

Good luck in winning lots of awards and putting them to limited use!

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