Saturday, January 15, 2011

Without Integrity and Trust, Rewards and Recognition are Meaningless

Picture yourself at a company awards banquet. It could be for the top sales people, top district office performance, inventor of the year, leader of the year, teacher of the year, etc…

Or, it could be an industry sponsored awards dinner, like Training Top 125, Fortune Great Place to Work, CLO of the Year, Best Leadership Development Program, Best Leadership Development Blog, etc…. (my industry).

You’ve just finished up your overcooked chicken cordon bleu, and are wrestling with your conscience about whether or not to dig into that slice of cheesecake.

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, the main event. The annual winners are about to be announced.

So when the winners are named (and it's not you), and they run up to the stage to accept their awards, the person next to you leans over, and knowingly says to you:

A. “Well deserved, no surprise there, they really earned it”. You can't wait to shake their hand and congratulate them.

Or, do they say:

B. “They cheated”. You politely smile and wonder if it's true.

It doesn’t have to be an awards dinner. Maybe you’re watching the event on television…. It could be American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, the Academy awards, the Le Tour De France, or the World Series.

Heck, it could even be election results.

If the typical response is B, “they cheated”, then the award or victory becomes worthless.

Your company, industry, sport, or profession has an integrity problem. It means whatever is being counted, measured, judged, or assessed can’t be trusted.

People have learned how to game the system, fudge the numbers, and there are not controls in place to prevent it or catch it. It means there are loopholes in the system that can be exploited, and people are all too willing to do whatever it takes to gain the advantage and win at all costs.

When someone wins where there is suspect integrity, the win is hollow and they usually know it. It may as well come with an asterisk. There’s no pride or sense of achievement. That framed award on the wall is embarrassing instead of a source of pride.

It’s also not motivational for the rest of the “contestants”. They know it’s a sham, so they either decide to not bother next time, or sacrifice their own integrity in order to compete.

Rewards and recognition are supposed to motivate, inspire, and not create cynicism and mistrust.

If you think your recognition or awards program is flawed and you can’t trust the results, then put and end to it until you can figure out a way to fix it.

What to do? Start by making sure the criteria for “winning” are clear, fair, and valid. Then, establish a measurement and tracking system that accurately measures that criteria and can’t be manipulated. Or, if the assessment is more subjective, make sure the “judges” are qualified, honest, and have credibility.

Industry awards that are based solely on company submitted applications are prone to “exaggerations and rounding errors”. The information needs to be audited and verified, or the award based on industry or market data. And please – this one drives me nuts – the award sponsor should not accept – or worse, blatantly solicit – advertising or sponsorships for the award publication or event. Oh yes, it happens, and while nothing fishy may be going on, it can’t help but create suspicion or a subconscious bias.

Perhaps the most important factor in ensuring there’s no cheating in a contest is cultural. For example, in professional golf, while the rules are clear, players police themselves. Cheating is rare (even though it’s easy to) because players put a high value on integrity out of respect for the game.

At the end of the day, no perfect system of measurement, tracking, or scoring can overcome a culture that lacks integrity and trust. People can always figure out a way to beat a system. However, in a culture that’s built on a rock-solid foundation integrity and trust, the reaction when the winner is announced will always be “Well deserved, no surprise there, they really deserve it”.

Who’s responsible for creating that culture? It all comes back to great leadership, doesn’t it?


Brandon Jones said...

This is a great post. It really helps to put the importance of integrity and trust into perspective. It also helps leaders to realize that if they don't like something, they are in a position to fix the situation. They must be proactive and just do something. Thanks, Brandon

Sebastian Font said...

Dan, I've seen real-life examples of integrity-less awards. One in particular was an Employee of the Year award, which was thought to be a popularity contest with the partners of the firm. Instead of motivating people, the award undermined morale, all at the hands of the leadership. I was a very young manager at the time, and when I suggested to my boss that the award lacked credibility, he scoffed. So I created my own award within my own department. The accolades were not company-wide, but they recognition came from their peers, and it was very meaningful to them.

Dan McCarthy said...

Brandon -
right, it's easier to complain about it than to fix it. thanks for your comment!

Sebastian -
Thanks, that's another good example of a recogition program backfiring due to a lack of credibility. Good for you for doing what Brandon said and being proactive.

Michael Edward Kohlman said...


This is a great post and ought to be one of those “required reading” moments.

The philosophy you have outlined is also very applicable to internal promotions and expansions of responsibility with the Enterprise as well.

One of the things that I have historically done when I have had the great honor and pleasure to promote someone who has been a part of my Team is to emphasize to them that they “self-selected” themselves into the Leadership Position, Recognition, or Additional Responsibilities and that while I may have been fortunate enough to provide some assistance or guidance along the way, They were the ones that stood up and stood out. All that I was doing as a representative of the organization was formally acknowledging something that everyone else is already recognizing as true (or will recognize as true when they have had a moment to think about). I have always found it a great way to let someone know that THEY earned the success that they are having and it purposely shifts the focus from myself (as the bestower of honor) to the person who should be in the limelight and should have the stage set for their next move.

Second, like your description of reactions to awards, it should pass the peer “smell-test”. If you are in a culture where a name is put forward for promotion or recognition and the general water-cooler reaction is “really? Them?” or worse it is “worst choice in the world but we are not really surprised given their connections and history”, leadership should be very, very worried.

Michael Edward Kohlman
(What are YOUR Leadership Resolutions for 2011?)

Dan McCarthy said...

Michael -
Great point on promotions, another form of recognition and reward.

Gina said...

Dan- Fantastic thoughts on this. I truly believe that if one shows a lack of integrity then everything they do then comes into question. There seems to be a trend in business these days where people are not placing enough value on being honest & doing the right thing. It's a terrible example to set for the next generation.

Derek Irvine said...

Great points, Dan. The key to structuring recognition and rewards to avoid this lies in creating a common "language" of recognition that is understood by all employees, regardless of where in the world they may work, job duties, or level within the organization. That's why we recommend the company values (and demonstration of them in daily work) as reasons for recognition and reward -- then publicizing that (as appropriate) through internal social recognition mechanisms. This helps all employees understand what it takes to be recognized -- especially if a detailed message is included describing precisely why the employee deserved recognition -- and prevents such gaming.

Dan McCarthy said...

Gina -
Well said, thanks. Integrity is the foundation of great leadership.

Derek -
Thanks. I like the part about the detailed message - that's often lacking, leaving it up to guessing.
Too bad we can't do the same thing when someone gets fired.

Julie-Ann said...

Fantastic post, Dan! You are absolutely right. Awards and honors are smoke and mirrors if integrity and achievements don’t go into winning them. This stands for workplace honors, too. This article ( offers some insights for more meaningful awards for workplace-based awards programs.

Dana said...

Great post, Dan! You are right on the money. It is too common these days to see people without integrity....and not only at the bottom. It is diffidently a problem at all levels of business. And, just like everything, it must be fixed starting at at the top. It is important to demonstrate integrity in everything you do. If you don't have trust inside the businesses, how can you have it on the outside?

Dan McCarthy said...

BTW,some of you may wonder why I publish some obvious plugs, but not others. Here are some guidelines:
1. don't do it too often
2. demonstrate you have at least read the post
3. make sure your link is relevant to the topic

Dana -
Great points! I'll bet there is a correlation. Thanks for commenting.

Guy Farmer said...

Great insights Dan. I've always found it curious how we so often reward people who know how to play the game rather than those who quietly toil in obscurity.

While public awards have their place I've found it more meaningful to praise people individually or set up meetings at work where everyone takes time to praise someone else. People simply like to be valued.