March 13, 2023
Recognition can motivate, or it can create resentment and undermine teamwork.
Rick Bohan, Brandon Davis, Ron Jacques Rick asks his students if they would be in favor of implementing a “Golden Broom” award at an imaginary manufacturing plant that would be given to the department that was the cleanest and most orderly. The large majority of them respond that, yes, they would implement such a program, arguing that it would establish a friendly competition among the departments, which would lead, in turn, to a cleaner, more orderly plant. Rick disagrees with his students. He tells the students several stories from his own experience of award programs that went badly awry. In one case, the managers at a coal mine Rick served told the miners that anyone who had perfect attendance for a year would receive a leather jacket imprinted with the company logo. The only workdays that one miner missed were contractually allowed bereavement days he took when his mother died. He didn’t receive a jacket. All of his co-workers returned their jackets to the mine’s superintendent. Most of the jackets had messages for the superintendent pinned to them. Those messages comprised just two words. Brandon, however, actually administered a “Golden Broom” award within one of his plants. He reports good results. So, who is right … the consultant/college professor or the manufacturing general managers? In these sorts of discussions, your best bet is usually to stick with the folks with actual management experience. And yet, as per Rick’s example, recognition programs can have disastrous results. The issue of how best to recognize good performance by associates turns out to be more complicated than it might seem. We know that associates like to be recognized for exemplary performance. Our experience tells us that a certain level of “friendly competition” among associates and departments can be beneficial. On the other hand, we’re aware that such programs can be and often are badly administered. In those cases, it would have been better not to implement the program at all. How, then, to deploy a recognition program that actually motivates performance? First, let’s explore some of the factors that result in award-program failure. Poor Planning
Too often, the planning devoted to a recognition program doesn’t go much beyond what
kind of gift card or trophy to give. When careful consideration isn’t given to ways in
which the program might go awry or even backfire, the company ends up having dozens
of leather jackets it must put into storage.
Poor Follow-Through
Even a good recognition program will fail if it isn’t kept on schedule or management
follow-through is poor. An Employee of the Month award that isn’t given monthly won’t
motivate much of anything.
Substantial Financial Rewards
Rick once worked for a Cleveland steelmaker that sustained an effective employee teams
initiative. A dozen or so teams that comprised only United Steelworkers members
tackled and solved a variety of safety, production and quality problems. For several
years, the only recognition any of the teams received was an annual banquet to which all
participants were invited.
Someone decided that it would be good if the teams shared in the savings that accrued
as a result of their ideas. Those of us directly involved with the teams were adamantly
opposed to the idea but were overruled by plant management. An awards program
began in which teams could divide awards among themselves of up to $65K. Those
financial awards all but destroyed the teams. Several teams disbanded as a result of
acrimonious negotiations in dividing the award.
It’s one thing to give a gift card to a local restaurant but substantial monetary awards
only create resentment and undermine teamwork. Just don’t do it.
Management Indifference
Too often, programs that are launched with lots of fanfare lose steam because managers
become indifferent to them. Rick worked for a hotel firm that carried out an “Employee
of the Month” award. Each month, during a staff meeting, someone would mention that
they were late in selecting an “Employee of the Month” and that they needed to do so
before anyone left the meeting. The groans around the conference table were clearly
The managers would toss out names until someone thought of an employee who hadn’t
received the award in a good while (or ever). Without further discussion, the managers
would take a quick vote in favor of the employee (who often wasn’t known to several of
the managers) and scramble out the door. Those managers clearly saw giving the award
as a trivial chore rather than as an important element in motivating the hotel’s
A Successful Recognition Program Starts with a Good Foundation
Strong recognition programs are built on strong foundations: good planning, effective
communications and management commitment.
Good Planning
What are the behaviors that management seeks to recognize and reward? What are the
benefits of providing recognition? In what ways might the program fail or backfire? Will
the program be seen as equitable and fair by everyone in the company? How should the
recognition or award be presented, and how often? Who, in particular, will see that the
program is effectively carried out and sustained? How will we measure the effectiveness
of the program?
These are just a few of the questions that managers need to consider and discuss before
implementing a recognition program.
Good Communications
Employee of the Month and Golden Broom awards are fine unless no one understands
why the winners are the winners. Or why they didn’t win in spite of their best efforts.
Employees trust that award programs will be fair when they have lots of information
about how they work, what the standards for receiving recognition are and why those
who were recognized received the award.
When starting a recognition program, managers aren’t just committing themselves to
handing out an occasional award. They are committing themselves to providing a
continual stream of information about the program for as long as it lasts. And, as we
mentioned above, it needs to last for the long haul. Or don’t bother to start.
On-Going Management Commitment
Once an award program is started, management had better stick with it. You can make
changes to improve a program, but ending a program assures that no one will trust you
the next time you talk about how seriously you take positive recognition of good
Further, managers must stay fully engaged with the recognition program. Employees
will notice immediately if management sees the program as a chore. A management
team that’s committed to providing meaningful recognition as a means of sustaining
performance won’t simply have HR send the certificate through the company mail. All
managers must stay involved with the initiative if it’s to be truly successful.
A Successful Recognition Effort
Brandon managed a large manufacturing operation whose campus was spread across 20
acres and six different facilities. That separation of facilities served as a barrier to
teamwork among associates. Instead of having one large group of employees focused on
“winning,” Brandon found himself managing six different groups of employees that
operated less like a team and more like a collection of individuals trying to make it
It might have been easy to come up with a “Teamwork Trophy” that was accompanied
by a gift card to a local restaurant. Instead, Brandon and his associates carried out BBQ
competitions between the facilities in which the different facilities competed against one
another to be seen as the best pitmasters. The winners of that competition would go on
to represent the company in local community competitions. Often, the final team was an
aggregation of the best talent from among the six facilities.
Those competitions inspired the individual facilities to look to one another for shared
best practices. They raised morale. More importantly, the natural leaders who didn’t
possess titles but had ability and aptitude became evident.
Brandon and his management team understood that the behavior they needed to
reinforce was teamwork. Their creative initiative did just that. It obviously took a lot of
planning, communication and management commitment to pull it off. The results were
clearly worth the investment.
Any recognition program is only as good as management makes it. A well-planned, wellcommunicated
program in which managers are fully engaged will provide benefits that
far exceed the costs of the initiative.
Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of
experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a
variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the
Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.