Recognition gone wrong

This is the time of year of graduation ceremonies, the recognition of educational achievement for hundreds of thousands of academics. Whatever standard of degree a student has achieved is irrelevant on graduation day - it is a collective celebration of hard work and reward.

So what can go wrong?

I attended a ceremony this week, with a faculty lunch before the ceremony. It was a small faculty, fewer than 50 students gathered and the professor said a few words about the hard work of the teaching staff and the achievement of two students in getting work in high places.

Then he introduced some extra 'recognition' for some high achieving students. This is where things went wrong. How? Because in a room filled with people feeling good about their achievement (accompanied by their families), selecting individuals for extra recognition is a risk - they feel even better about themselves but at the expense of everyone else who feels cheated or devalued.

This professor recognised some individual with letters of achievement - these are the ones he chose:
- best dissertation (fair enough)
- top 10 grades (fair enough)
- highest improvers - those whose marks from year 2 to year 3 had improved by 10% or more.

What? If you were rubbish in Year 2 but then turned it around in Year 3 you got a letter of achievement. But what about those who were consistently good in both years? Nothing. Not surprising that means more people not getting a letter than getting a letter. Ouch.

The final letters were awarded to all of those who achieved higher than 65% in their final year grades. That was everyone with a first and the top half of those who achieved a 2:1. Right - so if you got a 2:1 but it was less than 65% and you had been consistent across the years, you got nothing - you started the day feeling great and ended lunch feeling like you had a second class 2:1 grade and hadn't achieved as much as others who had worked less hard. Nice work.

This is very common for recognition schemes in business and everywhere - singling out individuals and groups for special recognition, however well intentioned, is fraught with danger - if it is ill considered then it will serve to demotivate more people than it rewards. 

So it was with this University - many left feeling under appreciated and resentful. Not the desired effect at all. 

That should never stop businesses and organisations from recognising achievement and success - but it emphasises the need to do it in a thoughtful and measurable way, so that everyone understands what they would need to do to get the same recognition - then it encourages the behaviours that the organisation wants to reward and hopefully engages more people. Not easy, but worthwhile.

Alan Wight