When awards divide us

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on October 23, 2019

Several organisations award top performers but today, when the process and jury are under question, is it better to stop the practice?

Yet another award is dividing us right now. This time, it’s the Nobel Prize for Economics to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer that is creating news for the wrong reasons. The dissonance is more around Abhijit Banerjee’s personality and opinions. The reason for the award and its merit has lost its purpose in this noise. We are also witnessing another debate on whether Veer Savarkar should get a Bharat Ratna or not.

This is not the first occasion when there has been a huge debate over awards, nor will it be the last. Remember the 2016 Oscar awards nominations when the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trended because no coloured actor had got nominated?

It is believed that awards help to motivate people to raise the bar and inspire others to achieve greater things. However, for every award being given out, many more people get disenchanted as we suspect the process, jury, awardee, and the context.

Annual awards

Organisations, too, with good intentions, initiate awards only to realise the damage they cause.

I remember every January; our HR team had to work extra hard to pacify people who did not get awards. Most often, the sales awards would be accepted by most as they were based on numbers. But, here again, the awards used to cause a divide between the racehorses and the ‘also ran’.

Even if the awards were based on acceptable parameters, the internal cut-throat culture they created amongst competing teams caused more distrust rather than motivate people to strive better. Teamwork, collaboration suffered whenever we had an awards systems where the winner took all. “We have to beat them next year” was more commonly heard in the individual team meetings.

The process

The scepticism about awards is not unfounded if you dig deep into the selection process of some of these awards. The composition of the selection panel often raises questions about biases. In some large organisations, there are rigorous processes to pick the winners. In spite of this, there are supervisory discretions that upset the applecart.

I remember that once we had nominated three people for a leadership award based on certain common criteria and sent that to our super boss. He called back and asked us why Rita’s name wasn’t in the short list and made us add her. Do you know who won the award that year? Rita, of course! From there on, every year, I used to ask him in advance if he had anyone in mind, to save my HR team’s time.

The biases

Once, we gave away the “customer champion” award to a person based on feedback we had from multiple customers. But there was outrage from many quarters in the company as the winner had not achieved her annual performance metrics. People began asking if it was okay not to achieve the targets and yet be eligible for awards. From then on we introduced the rider that only those employees who achieved annual targets would be eligible for the customer champion awards. Over the next three years nobody won the award. We unnecessarily complicated the process thanks to the ‘sour grapes’ remarks of a few.

The inclusion

Sometimes, leaders have an inclusion bias. Based on select criteria, only a few people make it to the awards. Hence certain awards are created solely to encourage some of the talents who are crucial to the organisation.

I remember initiating the best ‘turnaround’ and ‘knowledge champion’ awards to recognise specific talent who I felt were being left out. Most realised that new awards were created to suit those behaviours and achievements. This set tongues wagging. Next year, one of the leaders said we should have HR excellence awards too. In a few years, what had started as ten awards reached about 25 to accommodate more people. Soon, the awards lost their significance as we found convenient ways to recognise people whom we thought would otherwise be left out.

Attractions galore

Often the criticism that accompanies corporate awards has a tangible reason. The incentives, along with the awards, are difficult to ignore. They may involve overseas trips to receive the awards from the global CEO. Certain organisations have attractive cash rewards that prompt heavy lobbying from managers. Once a manager said, “I know none of our team members truly qualify for this. But what’s the harm in nominating? After all, the prize money is $3,000. If other countries don’t have worthy nominations, our people may win it. It’s a great motivating exercise for us to tell them that we have nominated you”. I know that doesn’t sound politically correct and doesn’t win a prize for statesmanship. But does that matter?

Let’s not forget the leverage awards given within and externally. First, it allows us to paint the world red thanks to social media. Second, it gives us access to senior leaders whom we haven’t met before and sort of acts as insurance during bad times. In other words it may prevent you being sacked during a downturn.

Once our CEO was reviewing the list of non-performers and asked, “Neeraj just won an award last year, and now we are saying he should be eased out, who is his manager?”

Awards are also a catalyst for attractive future jobs as our competitors look for people’s social feed to poach the top performers. Therefore, the huge lobbying that goes into awards, and sulking if you don’t get it, seems justified on many accounts.

However, just because many criticise or feel left behind, should we give up on awards and recognitions? In the world of likes and shares where we seek instant gratification, not giving an award seems like a crime. How does it feel when a teary-eyed employee holds up a trophy and says, “I have never won any awards in my entire academic life and this is my first”?

Wouldn’t you want to forget the critics and give such experiences to your employees again and again?

I’m reminded of the quote “If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success”.


Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm

Published on October 23, 2019

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