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5 recognition lessons from a cooking competition

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

In my latest book, Appreciate it! The Playbook for Employee Recognition, I share what I call the “Four Golden Rules of Recognition.” The second of these has to do with the concept of making recognition unified and inclusive, something key to recognition strategies, as well as our overall people strategies.

This is an area where much work still needs to be done. Too often, we put limits on who can be recognized, e.g. only one person can win employee of the month, or only six people can win employee of the year, etc, which can have negative consequences.

We need to practice “equal opportunity” recognition, looking at recognition through an inclusion lens, making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be noticed, appreciated and recognized.

Here are a five of the negative consequences that I share in my book:

1. Feelings of exclusion – By limiting the number of people who can be recognized it often leads to others feeling excluded, creating the “haves” and “have nots.” This goes against the grain of a unified and inclusive approach to recognition, putting up barriers and closing the door on recognition for many of your hard-working employees.

2. Negative reactions – It can also lead to negative reactions from those not winning the recognition awards, or as I call them, the “eye-rollers.” This happens when the names are called out and people roll their eyes and say things to themselves or to others like, “what did they do to win, I did the exact same thing as them,” or “I can’t believe they won again, they’re such a favorite,” or even “I give up, why work so hard if I’m never recognized!”

3. Creates more losers than winners – Next, this can lead to your employees feeling like either a winner or a loser, with the few, your top 5-10% of employees feeling like winners and the remaining 90-95% of employees feeling like losers.

4. Leaves out your “glue people” – Limiting recognitions can also leave out what Eric Hutcherson, Chief People & Inclusion Officer at Universal Group, calls his “glue people.” He explained that when he was at the National Basketball Association they had their stars and their glue people, who were those that held the team together. He went on to say that if we only recognized our stars, or in basketball terms, our scorers, we were completely ignoring those that make the assists or grab the rebounds or play great defense. These people, your glue people, are the ones that day after day show up and contribute to the success of your company, and if you don’t recognize them will walk away and leave your star players standing alone on the “court.”

"I believe the world is big enough that everyone can have success, and that you don't have to lose in order for me to win. We can all coexist, and all have an equal opportunity to be recognized."

5. Reduces the power of recognition – Finally, with fewer people being recognized it will naturally lead to fewer recognition moments which will directly impact the overall power and benefits of recognition. It’s simple math!

So what can we do to recognize those that truly and genuinely excel and contribute at a higher level than others? How can we have winners without making everyone else feel defeated, zapped of their drive and engagement, and feeling like losers? This was a question I racked my brain trying to figure out how best to answer until I was watching MasterChef Australia, a show where amateur chefs battle it out week after week to be crowned the champion. And it came to me, yes they only have one winner at the end of the season, but as contestants face elimination tests and one by one leave the show as losers, they actually leave as winners. Here’s five ways that they get it right:

1. There are multiple opportunities to be a winner – Throughout the series, there are many opportunities to celebrate contestant successes and to feel like winners, such as making it to the next level or winning individual cooking competitions. In fact, throughout the series, most contestants at one point in time have this winning feeling. Recognition tip: Look for opportunities to recognize your employees in a multitude of ways so that everyone has the opportunity to feel appreciated for their contributions.

2. There are many ways to be a winner – One reason why there are so many winners throughout the series is that there are multiple ways to win. Whether it’s a team challenge, a skills test or an invention test, they don’t just compete in one way throughout the series. This allows contestants with different skills to have the opportunity to excel and win. Recognition tip: Create multiple recognition plans within your overall program so that there are more opportunities to be recognized.

3. They have mini-winners – For each cooking challenge, they don’t just call out the name of the one winner but they call out and bring forward the top three winners of the challenge. By doing this, they're creating mini-winners, who feel like they’ve achieved something for being called forward and for having positive words being said about their dish, celebrating their successes. Recognition tip: Celebrate not just recognition award winners, but runner-ups and highly commended.

4. There are constant learning moments – Throughout every challenge, contestants are given feedback from the judges, positive and negative, which helps them learn and grow as chefs. One by one as they leave the show they consistently say the same thing, which is to thank the judges for such an amazing learning experience. In the last episode I watched, the contestant said, “I feel confident in my abilities, like I can fly out the door," which sounds like a winner and not a loser to me! Recognition tip: Teach your employees how to give meaningful recognition so that recognition provides both appreciation and learning moments.

5. They celebrate when they are eliminated – Although no one likes to lose and have to leave the show, they do this with such genuine respect and admiration, focusing on what they have done and not the fact that they have lost. So much so, that the final thing shared about the contestant in an episode is what they’ve done next to follow their cooking dream, whether that’s an apprenticeship, a food blog or even if they’ve opened up their own line of sauces. This is how they’ve taken what they’ve learned to move forward as a winner – and not a loser.

I encourage you to challenge your recognition strategy and program, taking a step back and evaluating whether it's driving inclusion and equity or driving a wedge in it. And if you need inspiration to change it, watch a few episodes of MasterChef Australia, read my book, or find other ways so that you can ultimately make these important changes.


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