The Gold Watch Era

You’ve probably heard the term. If not, it refers to this: during the Mad Men era, where you start working for a company after earning your college degree, you slowly move up the corporate ladder, getting a yearly Christmas bonus, an occasional plaque, and when you have reached a certain milestone with a company (either 20+ years or end of a career), you receive a gold watch.

The Current Era

It’s a bit different. First of all, the average job tenure in America right now is about 4.6 years — which is, perhaps surprisingly an increase from 1983, when it was 3.5 years. But still, no one is getting a gold watch at 4.6 years! What is interesting is that I work with dozens of companies and I don’t hear much talk about awards for longevity? However, I do hear a lot about awards for top performer, most sales, highest recruitment, or highest % of growth. Just look at your Facebook feed, you will see the recognition flow out monthly, quarterly, and annually. Now, it can be argued that it’s better than the large majority of companies that are likely to do nothing at all to recognize their employees.

The question that I want to ask is, what should we be rewarding and what are the foundational values behind our awards. It will have to be addressed at another time, but philosophically, values should drive awards just as ethics should drive laws, not the other way around.

The Gold Watch –

It celebrates loyalty, commitment, and steadfastness. Those are good things, right? 

The idea of monthly awards celebrating selling, performance, and hustle; also good things.

The problem is, they both have weaknesses as well.

The gold watch approach can lead towards apathy, mediocre performance, and decreasing creativity.

The top producer awards can fuel self-serving, individualistic behavior, selling over valuing people, and an unhealthy workaholic approach.

Is This a Business Issue or a Societal Issue?

That’s the interesting question to me.

For most of human history, identity came from the tribe — i.e. the group we participated in. This is what gave us meaning and validation. If the tribe succeeded, we counted that as our success. Spartans could hunt and kill Helots, but they were expected to die for the sake of Sparta. You grew corn so you could trade it with your neighbor who grew fruit. You had a mutual desire to see success for the whole as you worked in your individual area. Identity came from the success of the whole.

Modern man has flipped that.

Now, we are told our identity comes from within. Just think of all of the Disney movies that talk about going and “finding yourself.” Leave the island (tribe) and find out who you are (Moana). Frozen is about the need to escape to find and accept your true self. Meaning comes from within.

The question, then: do we need to disconnect from community to find ourselves or do we find ourselves as part of a community?

Should we award those that make the whole better or should we award those that achieve great things on their own?

That is the True Question

A lot of companies do have signs hanging up in the office like “TOGETHER WE WIN,” but then their entire incentive and recognition system is individually-driven.

That doesn’t work.

There needs to be three attributes to how this is designed:

  • Be purposeful, as in- What is the purpose of recognizing people? What behaviors in others are you hoping to inspire?
  • Be intentional, as in- Do it regularly and proclaim the intent and the reasons for this person or this team receiving the recognition when it happens. This requires some creativity. Maybe you reward for some different reasons other than what is typically thought about. Think of ways you can reward activity and effort over just results.
  • Be aligned between how you compensate/reward and what you believe are your core values

Again, cultures that often talk of togetherness and collaboration and winning as a team only have recognition programs for top sales guys. Those cultures are lying to all the other employees, and eventually those employees will see through that. (It might take years, yes.)

But if you have a culture of collaboration and reward teams of 3-4 people that worked across departments/silos together, then you are sending the message that “Teams and collaboration do matter!”

That’s purposeful, intentional, and aligned.

Think More About What You’re Doing, Too

Consider this:

There are roughly 2,400 Google searches per month for ’employee recognition ideas.’ That’s really not that many when you consider how many people are managers/bosses in the world, and the low volume shouldn’t be too surprising.

In this book I recently read, The Carrot Principle, they discuss one particular set of employee recognition ideas.

Let me set this up for you.

They refer to another book, Hardwiring Excellence, and four questions you can ask an employee at 90 days. The four questions are all good ones:

  • Have we lived up to our promises to you?
  • What do you think we do best?
  • What have you seen in your other jobs that might work here?
  • Have we done anything in 90 days where you might consider leaving?

These four questions are awesome to ask at the three-month mark. It’s all about showing the employee you value them.

It’s an easy, cost-effective version of employee recognition ideas.

So in various studies around these four questions, consultants have asked employees one simple question:

  • Has your manager ever asked you any of these four questions?

In years and years of asking that question, they’ve never heard the word “yes.”

That’s a problem.

Again: rewards and recognition are about purpose, intent, and alignment. Focus there.