You see them everywhere from fast food restaurants to hospitals. Often, they are accompanied by photographs of the winners and perks like preferred parking spots. Yes, the ubiquitous Employee of the Month (EOM) awards.
Clearly, they are attempts to recognize good work and provide an incentive for more of it. But thanks to Chip and Dan Heath, we know why they come up short. Readers of this blog are familiar with the brothers Heath from previous references to their books Made to Stick and Switch (https://www.tildensst.com/2015/04/28/review-switch-how-to-change-things-when-change-is-hard/).The insights into the failings of Employee of the Month programs come from their third book, Power of Moments (2017).
While supported by research, the Heath’s reasons make common sense. One, is that the Employee of the Month would be awarded to same employee, or a small group of employees, every month. Instead, the panel making the awards wants to be fair and determines:
”We can’t give the EOM to Jean again, she just got it last month. Let’s give it to Frank. The poor guy has never been recognized and maybe this will boost his performance.”
People look around and think if mediocre Frank got the award, how legitimate can it be? In this instance, and I have lived it, the EOM has the unintended consequence of demotivating observers.
The second reason the Heaths offer is that recognition that serves to motivate is personal and not institutional. Effective personal recognition comes when a supervisor recognizes a team member in a timely way for a specific accomplishment.
I once worked for a college president, who would enter offices when they were empty and hang wooden clothes pins with ten-dollar bills inscribed with words like, Nice job with XYZ.
Who doesn’t like a crisp $10 bill? But what was really rewarding was the inscribed clothes pin. This was especially true when you would visit a colleague’s office and count the number of clothes pins that had accumulated and compare it to your collection.
A while ago, I coached an executive in the Chicago area who would think through what was especially valued by various team members. If she was a Cubs fan, she would get a baseball signed by the team. If another member of his team was an opera fan he would get tickets to the opera. It was fun for the executive to do and it worked.
The third reason does not come from the Heaths but from my own experience. Much important work by my clients is done in teams. EOMs focus on individuals. The solution here could be simply to recognize a team for its contribution, not just individuals.
The take-aways here are pretty straight forward. 1 Recognize the limitations of EOMs; 2 Find a personalized way to reward team members for specific achievements in a timely way and; 3 Reward teams for their contributions, even if it means more photos and more parking spaces.