I heard a comedian on the radio talking about being present at company events where awards are handed out. He mentioned that the worst, in his opinion, was the “most improved” award. He went on to explain, that although all the recipients seemed very happy to get the award, because they feel the company is acknowledging improvement. But, if you really think about it, the sub-text of most improved could be seen as: “you used to be awful, but now you are a little less awful”. He also pointed out that if you have a group of finalists in this category, the others in the group must feel like they are being told: “You were awful, and you don’t get to move out of that category to less awful”. Usually, comedians use exaggeration to poke fun at everyday situations, but in this case, it really struck a nerve.
How do you go about acknowledging improvement without making your employees feel like they have received a compliment with an insulting flip-side?
- Change the name: There are plenty of words in the English language to come up with an alternative to “most improved”.
- Change the game: Company awards must leave out huge chunks of the staff pool and although they boost those who get them, they can demotivate those who believe they worked just as hard but were not as visible. One cannot give everyone a prize without devaluing the award, so it is perhaps better to think of other ways to provide incentives and recognition.
- Change the venue: Assessing performance and whether improvement has been achieved should be a private discussion between manager and employee, rather than a public declaration.
- Change lives: Employees value incentives that improve their lives and their careers, therefore pay increases or workshops that uplift and advance are much more welcome than trophies or company jollies.
Googling the phrase “most improved award” results in pages and pages of information about Basketball and Grid-iron football. Interestingly, in the professional basketball world, the most improved player award is viewed with some scepticism by sports journalists. It has been observed that players who receive the award are never the top tier players or have the ability to make it to the top tier. If this is the case in a highly competitive sport, does it also hold true in businesses?
If your company hands out awards and has a most improved category, it might be time to take a good look at past recipients and see if they have not really noticeably advanced. If this is the case, then perhaps it’s time to consider if getting a most improved award is the equivalent of damning with faint praise.