Leading Leaders Excerpt: Recognizing and Promoting Excellence

Leaders should deliberately recognize and reward excellence of members as a means of encouraging excellence for both the team as a whole and by individuals. This usually takes the shape of a formal recognition program, but it should also include informal recognition as well. The real trick for the skilled leader is to know how to balance those two forms of recognition.

Formal recognition programs are certainly the most prevalent and can be very effective at promoting excellence if managed carefully. Virtually every organization of any size has an “Employee of the Month” or similar program. These are important; however, I believe the leader must deliberately manage these programs to avoid having them become meaningless. Because they are ubiquitous, there can be a tendency among employees to discount or even make fun of the program. It’s really up to the leader to be sure that doesn’t become the case by ensuring the process for selecting winners is fair, objective, and non-repetitive. It’s very easy for a busy leader to select winners for these sorts of programs randomly or casually. Leaders must resist the temptation to do so. So long as there is a defined process and objective criteria that everyone knows, and the leader follows the process, then the team will respond positively to “of the month” programs. However, if the employees see the same people winning time after time, or believe (even erroneously) that winners are selected based on their ability to “butter up” management, then no amount of sincere praise will make the winners feel special and recognized.
I had a personal experience where this derision of the recognition program surprised me greatly. We had a “do it yourself” shop at an Air Force base where I was stationed as the Operations Chief in a public works department. The DIY shop was staffed by a small group of fairly senior people, and they consistently did heroic work to enable the Airmen at various units around the base to fix things themselves instead of waiting for facility maintenance personnel to come do it for them. We saved hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in labor, and the program encouraged pride in the facilities by the Airmen. On top of that, our DIY program was consistently regarded as one of the best of the dozen or so in Air Combat Command. The surprise came, however, when I attempted to recognize the civilian manager who led the DIY shop. He came to my office and emotionally demanded that I remove his name from contention as “Civilian Manager of the Quarter.”
While he never gave me a specific reason, I believe he’d lost faith in the process. I think he had come to believe that the selection of winners for the quarterly awards was based only on “favorites” and wanted no part of it. Reluctantly, I agreed not to recognize him, but it gave me impetus to make some significant changes in how we selected our award winners in the future. I made sure the mini-boards for selecting our winners were composed of more people and that the process was more formalized. I also made sure we were keeping notes as to who had won and from which shop, to be sure that we spread the awards around and looked for people who were performing in the “shadows” rather than just “out front.” It took a while, but I believe that by the time I’d left, we’d restored a measure of trust in the system.

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