Do You Only Recognize the Superstar Employees in Your Organization?

Who gets recognized in your organization? Just the superstars – the top 10 percent high performers? Or do you acknowledge those who grind out the work day after day – the middle 80 percent who make it possible for your stars to shine?

Too often, I hear the argument, “My superstars deserve extra recognition and rewards. The rest? I pay them to do their job. That’s reward enough.”

Is it? I don’t think so.

In an excellent post on his Work Matters blog last week, Stanford Professor and author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, Bob Sutton wrote about the great damage inflicted by “visionary leaders” who dream big, but always leave the details to others. He goes on to discuss the impact to the organization of not honoring the contributions of consistently competent employees day after day:

“James March, perhaps the most prestigious living organizational theorist, frames all this in an interesting way, arguing that the effectiveness of organizations depends at least as much on the competent performance of ordinary bureaucrats and technicians who do their jobs well (or badly) day in and day out as on the bold moves and grand rhetoric of people at the top of the pecking order.  To paraphrase March, organizations need both poets and plumbers, and the plumbing is always crucial to organizational performance.  (See this long interview for a nice summary of March’s views).

“To be clear, I am not rejecting the value of leadership, grand visions, and superstars.  But … too many organizations are doing damage by giving excessive credit, stature, and dollars to people with the big ideas and giving insufficient kudos, prestige, and pay to people who put their heads down and make sure that all the little things get done right.”

The middle 80% ALSO deserve recognition

Don’t your superstars deserve more accolades than “average” contributors? Certainly they do. And in a strategic recognition program, properly implemented, they will receive higher value, more frequent recognition than others in the organization.

But in that strategic recognition program, the middle 80 percent will also receive the recognition they deserve for living your values while contributing to your strategic objectives – and attending to the details that make the vision of your superstars a reality.

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Or, as Professor Sutton said:

“I am not saying that we don’t need heroes and visionaries.  Rather, we need leaders who help us link big ideas to the little day to day accomplishments that turn dreams into realities.”

So I ask once again, who gets recognized in your organization?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


4 Comments on “Do You Only Recognize the Superstar Employees in Your Organization?

  1. Totally agree with you. It’s always easy to pick the salesperson who closed the big deal or the head of engineering who just launched an amazing product and reward them. But the reality is that we need everyone performing at their best and being thanked and recognized. The clerk, assistant, mid level manager, even our interns and contractors deserve our thanks. I’ve always busted my butt, from cleaning construction sites in high school to crap assignments in the Marine Corps. But I was also blessed having had bosses who took the time to thank me. I remember a hot Summer day when I was 15 – had just spent all day cleaning up construction debris on my $7/hour under the table job and the foreman came by in his truck, thanked me and gave me one of those mega-gallon big gulp cokes from 7-11. I worked my ass of for that guy all summer long and I was the lowest peon on that entire crew.

    1. Excellent story to illustrate my point, Paigecraig. Thank you for adding your personal experience. I believe this same kind of experience is reflective of many of us – just tell me thank you and I’ll bend over backwards to help you be a success.

      1. Thanks Derek – and kudos to you for pointing out a major problem. Most of us in leadership roles spend far too much time thinking the 10% superstars deserve all of our attention. I think I was lucky to experience life differently – I grew up working with my hands and saw from the ground up both how a small family business and a massive enterprise like the Marine Corps runs on the efforts of the many. I respect my senior staff tremendously and I always try to attract inspiring executives. But the reality is that junior engineers, customer support staff, sales reps, ops managers and millions of other hard working people are the real engines of productivity. They’re on the front line working with customers and ensuring our products and services deliver value.

        If you really care about building a great company then you need to celebrate the daily wins, the small accomplishments and the good attitudes and smiles you see in your office. You need to praise and recognize your people and it doesn’t have to be a promotion or pay raise. After starting a couple companies and investing in several dozen tech companies I decided to channel my passion for people and great teams by starting BetterWorks ( – I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we’re helping people recognize and rewards every employee…not just the 10%.

  2. This is an excellent reminder for everyone in a management role. The superstars might stand out more, but the average workers are also contributing in important ways to work toward team goals. 

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