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Mar 30, 2012

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.

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.