Without Integrity and Trust, Rewards and Recognition are Meaningless

Picture yourself at a company awards banquet. It could be for the top sales people, top district office performance, inventor of the year, leader of the year, teacher of the year, etc…

Or, it could be an industry sponsored awards dinner, like Training Top 125, Fortune Great Place to Work, CLO of the Year, Best Leadership Development Program, Best Leadership Development Blog, etc…. (my industry).

You’ve just finished up your overcooked chicken cordon bleu, and are wrestling with your conscience about whether or not to dig into that slice of cheesecake.

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, the main event. The annual winners are about to be announced.

So when the winners are named (and it’s not you), and they run up to the stage to accept their awards, the person next to you leans over, and knowingly says to you:

A. “Well deserved, no surprise there, they really earned it”. You can’t wait to shake their hand and congratulate them.

Or, do they say:

B. “They cheated”. You politely smile and wonder if it’s true.

It doesn’t have to be an awards dinner. Maybe you’re watching the event on television…. It could be American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, the Academy awards, the Le Tour De France, or the World Series.

Heck, it could even be election results.

If the typical response is B, “they cheated”, then the award or victory becomes worthless.

Your company, industry, sport, or profession has an integrity problem. It means whatever is being counted, measured, judged, or assessed can’t be trusted.

People have learned how to game the system, fudge the numbers, and there are not controls in place to prevent it or catch it. It means there are loopholes in the system that can be exploited, and people are all too willing to do whatever it takes to gain the advantage and win at all costs.

When someone wins where there is suspect integrity, the win is hollow and they usually know it. It may as well come with an asterisk. There’s no pride or sense of achievement. That framed award on the wall is embarrassing instead of a source of pride.

It’s also not motivational for the rest of the “contestants”. They know it’s a sham, so they either decide to not bother next time, or sacrifice their own integrity in order to compete.

Rewards and recognition are supposed to motivate, inspire, and not create cynicism and mistrust.

If you think your recognition or awards program is flawed and you can’t trust the results, then put and end to it until you can figure out a way to fix it.

What to do? Start by making sure the criteria for “winning” are clear, fair, and valid. Then, establish a measurement and tracking system that accurately measures that criteria and can’t be manipulated. Or, if the assessment is more subjective, make sure the “judges” are qualified, honest, and have credibility.

Industry awards that are based solely on company submitted applications are prone to “exaggerations and rounding errors”. The information needs to be audited and verified, or the award based on industry or market data. And please – this one drives me nuts – the award sponsor should not accept – or worse, blatantly solicit – advertising or sponsorships for the award publication or event. Oh yes, it happens, and while nothing fishy may be going on, it can’t help but create suspicion or a subconscious bias.

Perhaps the most important factor in ensuring there’s no cheating in a contest is cultural. For example, in professional golf, while the rules are clear, players police themselves. Cheating is rare (even though it’s easy to) because players put a high value on integrity out of respect for the game.

At the end of the day, no perfect system of measurement, tracking, or scoring can overcome a culture that lacks integrity and trust. People can always figure out a way to beat a system. However, in a culture that’s built on a rock-solid foundation integrity and trust, the reaction when the winner is announced will always be “Well deserved, no surprise there, they really deserve it”.

Who’s responsible for creating that culture? It all comes back to great leadership, doesn’t it?