The 90s-Style Crew-Member-Of-The-Year Program That Won’t Go Away

Written by Mike Shapiro | | December 20, 2017

It’s that time again. CNN has announced the winners of its Heroes Awards — the program that has folks competing with each other for end-of-year recognition as — well, being more heroic than other people, I guess. As in past years, the winners are folks doing wonderful things, but are they really more terrific than so many other terrific people out there who didn’t win?

You remember the employee recognition awards: Crew Member Of The Year, Outstanding Employee, Above-And-Beyond Awards. They were a staple of 1990’s corporate culture, originally conceived to motivate employees to work harder and better by calling attention to extraordinary work done by some of their peers. It seemed like a good idea at the time: If workers see extra effort being recognized, maybe they’ll be more likely to do better themselves in the hopes of getting similar recognition next time.

But there were some problems with identifying the award-worthy work:

Where’s the extraordinary result? Extraordinary effort wasn’t enough. You needed something tangible to show for it. There had to be an end result, and it had to happen before the “nomination date.” Lots of excellent work leads up to a deliverable that materializes months and even years in the future. Much of this back-work is invisible to others outside the team. Any finish date that nicely coincides with the award nomination date is usually happenstance. Many truly great accomplishments take years and even decades to identify and appreciate. And then there is that huge amount of work that ends up with no result at all — ever.

Which one’s the hero?  The winner had to be identified as the person who made the difference. But most work is done by teams of people, sometimes seamlessly, other times chaotically, contributing to the end result. Singling out one person was usually arbitrary and often ended up damaging the delicate interpersonal dynamic of the team.

Where’s the Wow? The accomplishment has to be adjudged to be extraordinary. Most people work hard every day, with some successes and some failures, some bigger than others, but mostly small. Extraordinary-ness is arbitrary and subjective, and in the eye of the beholder.

Is this one bigger than the other Wows?  The effort had to be deemed more extraordinary than that of other contestants. But assessing comparative value depends on many factors such as breadth and depth of impact, neediness of the beneficiaries and so on, much of which eludes the simplistic evaluations that characterize awards programs like these.

And it’s questionable whether the celebration and recognition really had the expected or desired effect on the organization:

The winners sometimes felt embarrassed, uncomfortable and self-conscious rather than proud. They very likely knew the teamwork involved, and knew deep-down there was something wrong with their being singled out to the exclusion of others who contributed just as much.

Some non-winners felt like “losers,” and were jealous rather than admiring. They had their own opinions of the relative value of the winners’ work compared with their own, and often felt “robbed.”

Most workers didn’t find it motivating at all.  It turns out motivation at work is a very individualized thing, and different people view recognition in different ways. Many found these programs a big yawn at best or, at worst, a joke.

Awards lead workers to the misguided impression that work must be recognized by some outside party to be worth doing. The truth is that a lot good work goes unnoticed, and many of the things we do end up as pieces of a puzzle, to be completed by others, some time later or not at all. Developing an understanding of that difficult truth is an important part of maturing as a worker and as a person.

Awarding prizes and encouraging competition is ok for sporting events. The boundaries have been pushed to singing, dancing and even cooking, and maybe even that’s alright too. But when it extends to the daily work of doing your job and living your life, it’s gone too far.

Most folks are hardworking people and do what they do either because it’s their job, they care deeply about something or someone or simply that the “bell tolled” and they were impelled to take action. The chance for public recognition is usually the last thing on their minds, and that’s for the best. Maybe we can’t do much about the Heroes program. But at least we can be sure not to replicate it in the workplace.