The Serious Consequences of Getting Team Recognition Wrong

The husband of a member of my team (we’ll call him “Tom”) works on very complex circuit board designs.

The way the company is structured, Tom is pulled in as a resource to an engineering team as new projects are added. Based on the traditional organization chart, however, he is not a member of the engineering team.

A year ago, Tom worked with a particular engineering team headed by Jim on a project worth tens of millions of dollars to the organization. During the course of developing the circuit board, Tom found an error with design prior to the board going to manufacture. Tom’s discovery and fix saved the company several million dollars in erroneous production costs, increasing the profit margin on this particular project.

Saving the team, but not reaping the rewards

Upon total project completion, the entire team was recognized for their exceptional accomplishments, receiving monetary bonuses based on the overall profit margin of the contract. But, because Tom is not a hierarchical member of Jim’s team, Tom did not receive any percentage of the monetary bonus (though he was included in the party celebrating project completion and announcing the bonuses).

Skip ahead to two weeks ago. The company closes a multi-billion dollar contract. Jim walks down to Tom’s desk to talk about the project and how excited Tom should be to work with Jim and his team on it.

Tom looks at Jim and says, “Why should I offload my current projects to work with you on this? I see no benefit to me.

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The consequences of getting recognition wrong

Getting team recognition wrong has several serious consequences:

  1. De-motivation and disengagement overall – Tom did great work. Because of his catch of an error, the entire team received additional award bonuses – except Tom. The lesson Tom learns is that his work is not valued, so why should he try to find expensive errors in the future? Instead, Tom is encouraged to just do run-rate work.
  2. Refusal to participate (or reluctant participation) in future teams – In this case, Tom can refuse to even participate on the new project, so Jim loses an exceptional, experienced resource. But if Tom could not refuse joining the team, his contribution and level of effort will not be up to prior levels. In fact, actively disengaged employees might go so far as to sabotage the project.
  3. Reinforcement of old-school, rigid reporting lines and hierarchies – Modern circles of influence are just that – broad circles of people who interact and work together in multiple different ways and not according to rigid hierarchical reporting structures.

A better way to handle team recognition

Here’s a better approach to team recognition:

  1. Look beyond the org structure to the social structure for true team recognition. Recognize all contributors to a project being recognized, not just hierarchical team members.
  2. Honor contribution, level of effort and behavior demonstrated, not just participation. Not all members of a team contribute equally and those variations should be honored.
  3. Publicize team accomplishments, featuring individuals as appropriate.

How have you seen team recognition go wrong?

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 irvine@globoforce.com.

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