Reader Question: Team or Individual Recognition?

A question from a reader:
I have a question for you, that has been bugging me for some time. I am a team leader of a student team that participates in competition.
At the end of competition, I am thinking about rewarding the team with some token gifts (it would be covered personally by me). What is the best rewarding policy? Should I reward everyone (since we are a team), no matter personal performance, or award only star performer or award based on merit.
There is one clear under performer in the team. On the other hand, I have another team mate, who always is on time, delivers solid performance and available when needed.

Ah, rewards and recognition. It’s one of those things that as leaders, we know it’s important, and that we should do it. However, I’ve seem so many examples of well intended R&R efforts blow up and come back to haunt the leader.

I’ve also seen organizations attempt to develop formal recognition programs. They often get bogged down in bureaucracy, minutia, and politics and end up never achieving the intended results.

I believe recognition is best when it’s situational and personal. A good leader develops a relationship with his/her team, and gets to know what’s important to them and how they like to be recognized. For new teams, leaders can just ask their teams; some even send recognition surveys. Recognition norms also vary by cultures, although I’ve found that appreciation for a job well done seems to be universal – it’s just how you do it that matters.

When you’re managing a project team, it’s important to provide both individual and team recognition during the course of the project, vs. holding back and waiting until the end. This would be the best time to recognize – and reinforce – good individual performance. It’s also the best time to address individual problems – like your under performer. Sometimes, an under performer needs to be replaced during the project, although I realize that may not have been an option for a school project team.

My advice to you at this point would be to hold an informal team celebration to recognize the team’s collective achievement. It could involve serving the team ice cream sundaes, or some kind of special treat. A small gift is a good idea too, something that would serve as a positive memento of the project. I prefer not to single out individual performance during these kind of celebrations. You always run the risk of offending, excluding, or embarrassing someone. I know there’s exceptions to this rule – sales comes to mind, where public individual competition and recognition are an expectation and part of the culture. But generally, and just my own personal preference, I usually single out individuals privately. Perhaps you could take your star performer aside (if you haven’t already), and let them know how much you appreciate their extra effort. When it’s sincere, specific, and timely, and comes from the leader’s heart, that usually means more to someone than an award or bonus.

Now I’ll tell you what really bugs me – when schools give the same grade to everyone on a student project team. This seems to be a trend lately, at least at some U.S. schools, and I hate it. I’m all for teaching students the importance of teamwork and collaboration, two critical workplace skills. But when it comes to grades – and bonuses – there needs to be consideration given for both team and individual performance.