Silicon Mountain
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Silicon Mountain

Sincerity in Recognition Programs

Remember finishing your degree? Knowledge acquired, validated.

Look, this might bounce around a little. There are good and bad things about recognition programs and processes in our culture in general. The topic of conversation I hope to spark relates to how frequently we celebrate achievements vs. how we evaluate the value of achievements, and the associated impacts at scale.

Actually, this topic came up in a personal discussion recently, where a relative shared with me their experience with avoiding recognition and resulting anticipation of cultural backlash from leadership for a ‘failure to recognize’ or ‘failure to be inclusive’. Thankfully, I have a little more influence over the culture of our company. I feel that the courage to not recognize, the ability to not necessarily punish the bad behavior but to negatively reinforce to achieve a desired behavior is necessary and valuable. If you have not read Radical Candor by Kim Scott, I highly recommend it. One of the theses in this book is that by overly caveating or excusing behaviors that are not productive, or not conducive to growth, we societally are failing employees and inevitably reinforcing bad outcomes. Have you ever received the equivalent of a participation award in business? Have you ever been recognized positively in a job that was a bad fit for both you and your company? I have.

A Personal Journey of Recognition

In my professional journey, I have worked for small, large, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations of a blended existence. In that time, on at least two separate occasions, I received team and personal awards at annual ceremonies. At the time, most of those carried a modest monetary award. The hardest part for me? The people who were recognizing our, or my accomplishments usually were relatively disconnected from delivery. Furthermore, the presentation often felt rather lackluster. Details were missing. The real achievements gave way to fabricated narratives about the determination or perseverance necessary to succeed.

In at least two of those jobs, I left that company within the year. Not for a lack of recognition. Instead, the recognition activity made clear that I was in the wrong role or wrong company. Or, in at least one case it lead to a promotion that was a poor fit for my skills and personality. Managers within the organization wanted members of the team to be of the ‘in group’ of those with recognition boxes checked more than a good professional and personal fit.

The biggest problem for me was that recognition was becoming an entitlement scenario, especially at larger scale. These ‘participation awards’ started to really stretch what and why recognition programs exist.

Additionally in absolutely zero of the situations where recognition was given did leadership acknowledge the inevitable failures that provided the greatest value to the team. A team that succeeds often has experience with wrestling with failures, challenges, or uncertainty.

The Challenge at Scale

At scale, for example within the federal government, these programs are at a crossroads of value. For some people recognition from leadership might be exactly what they need to enhance their experience at work. For other personality types, these recognition programs are growingly ignorable. My personal anecdote points to some of the reasons that people are discouraged by the recognition. Here are a few potential issues:

  • Is the recognition too far removed from the activity?
  • Is the program driving recognition too frequently?
  • Are we inadvertently recognizing non-contributors?
  • Does leadership value the program?
  • Does the team or person receiving the recognition understand the narrative?
  • Are we recognizing things that do/don’t align with our goals and values?
  • Is the recognition compulsory or culturally expected?

As we all continue to work on culture, I am particularly concerned about the last bullet. Do we all want to be recognized? On some level, sure. Does that environment hypothetically seem very positive? Sure, yea, I could see that being assumed. In my experience at large and small companies, though, these compulsory actions result in insincerity in the message, tone, and enthusiasm around the activity. Inevitably, it results in poorer outcomes than no recognition at all. At least, that’s my observation. And I have heard it in messaging from peer leaders, that the recognition has degraded to a level of ‘participation award’ scenarios.

The Personal Benefit of Small Business

In smaller companies, there is a greater opportunity for the leadership to be in an intimate position observing achievements. Additionally, achievements tend to be more reasonably spaced in the space/time continuum for the recognition to be timely and public in nature, which are two baseline requirements for positive reinforcement.

We do, however, tend to be moving quite fast and in a lot of directions. That feeds my soul. Still, at times, it results in overlooking significant achievement and the appropriate celebration for the benefit of attacking the next challenge. Not everyone at a small company will have the same tendency to seek out the next challenge. Even small company employees can still want to be employees with all of the benefits of a work environment that goes slow enough to recognize its milestones. As leaders we are recognizing our pace and intent needs to adapt to the different scenarios and personalities. In some cases, we frankly need to be celebrating a lot more, and a lot more publicly.

Hypothetical Solutions at Scale

Perhaps the fact that the program is a program dehumanizes the experience. We talked about a couple of core requirements for any recognition. It must be an achievement. It must be timely. It must be sincere. Also, it would be nice if the learning leading up to the milestone were acknowledged, showing a deep investment in the program and people both being recognized and celebrating the recognition.

As you start working on improvements for your recognition program at scale, here are a few ideas:

  1. Timeliness — sometimes you need to do it ad hoc. Not all of your achievements align with an annual ceremony. Much like the Oscars, you might lose track of some of the early contenders and only remember the most recent movies.
  2. Sincerity — if you have a requirement or desire to have senior leaders acknowledge an accomplishment, make sure they meet that person and team before you put them on stage. Otherwise, the message is probably better delivered by someone intimately engaged.
  3. Evaluation — be willing to ask yourself and your team if this is something that deserves recognition. Try a thesis and counter-thesis approach, make someone defend that it is not viable as an achievement and see if that defense is valid enough and has genuine enthusiasm. Acknowledge potential bias.
  4. Avoid Compulsory Achievements — if a team or person is not recognized, there is probably a reason. Use a little caution on this one, sometimes people are just not strong at promoting their own achievement and sit and wait for someone to recognize their milestone. These workers are awesome and deserve credit. However, not all workers deserve credit for attendance awards.
  5. Push Down Authority — acknowledgement from the top is great. It’s necessary. So is scarcity to reinforce value. Avoid taking on too much authority. Enable appropriate escalation as you would with risks and other issues.

The Best Recognition Program I’ve Experienced

At one job in my career, the local leadership was creative and had a good sense of humor. Possibly because of his background in the DEA as an agent for an entire career. At that job, he came up with a localized, personalized award for recognizing something goofy. It was sincere, timely, and it fit this leader’s style. The award name? The “Chicken with its Head Cut Off” award. It went to members of the team who we personally knew could take a good joke and was worthy of recognition for something goofy they do as a part of their personality. Some of the best stories stem from awarding those recognitions and I know members of the team still treasure that specific, sincere act.

Hope you enjoyed this article. Above all, don’t be too predictable or insincere in recognition programs. Any better ideas? Shoot them to me on LinkedIn.




Silicon Mountain is a small company based out of Denver, CO with multiple SBIR awards. We deliver DevSecOps as a service to enable our employees and customers to own their mission success.

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Michael Downard

Michael Downard

Michael works for a small business as Principal Investigator for multiple SBIR awards and earned a part-time MBA from George Mason and is both a PMP & PMI-ACP.

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