Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Attaboys and Mediocrity in the Modern Workplace: The War Against Meritocracy

Elan Hasson - Cardinal Path Training Certification of Completion AdWords 101-201 - Analytics 101-301
My Certificate of Completion
I recently attended a week of training courses instructed by Cardinal Path to deepen my knowledge of Google AdWords and Google Analytics. At the end of the course I received the Certification of Completion. All I had to do to get this certification is pay a bunch of money and show up. While showing up is half the battle, it certainly doesn't mean that I learned anything or that I achieved anything noteworthy.

So why do training organizations give out attaboys? I don't think they'll help you get a raise or even a job. I think it's because you (or your boss) shelled out mucho dinero for the courses and they want something tangible to show for it.

All this got me thinking about how pats on the back can actually breed (and encourage) mediocrity in an organization.


What is an Attaboy?

at·ta·boy
ˈatəˌboi/
exclamation
exclamation: attaboy; exclamation: atta-boy
  1. 1.
    an informal expression of encouragement or admiration, typically to a man or boy.
noun
noun: attaboy; plural noun: attaboys; noun: atta-boy; plural noun: atta-boys
  1. 1.
    a piece of encouragement or congratulations, especially a letter.
    "our boss will write you guys an attaboy"

"Attaboy" usage is on the rise according to Google NGram:


The Human Condition?

Perhaps as a society we've come to expect to be told that we're doing a great job at what we are supposed to be doing. Could this be a side effect of overly progressive parenting?

In a prior life, an employee survey was sent to all employees asking how they would like to be recognized for their work achievements. The results of the survey were as follows (in order of preference by respondents):

  1. Receiving a "Shout Out" during the weekly all-hands department meeting and having your name and photo placed on a PowerPoint slide which displayed for the month on many TV screens throughout the building
  2. Being told privately by your manager that you're doing a good job
  3. Monetary Compensation (salary increase, bonus, gift cards)
While this wasn't a scientific poll, the results are pretty alarming. I could not believe so many people would take public recognition over monetary compensation for achievements. What made matters worse is there was no criteria for recognizing someone. Anyone could submit a shout out for anyone else. It soon devolved into process of promoting mediocrity.

This particular organization had a culture of congratulating the smallest achievement and rewarding management and team members for "hours of work and tireless dedication" regardless of the success of the project. In some cases, people were promoted for failing. Yes, several people were actually promoted for not accomplishing their goals and objectives. This is the workplace equivalent of being given a participation ribbon.

Waging War Against Meritocracy

The participation paycheck (see what I did there?) prompted those of us who accomplished our goals and completed our objectives to cry in outrage. It was upsetting enough to hardly be recognized for our successful outcomes, but to insult those who do by rewarding those who don't was just plain wrong.

This type of behavior by leadership in an organization is toxic. It irreparably damages corporate culture and morale. It takes a full "corporate generation" of staff turnover and management changes to correct. If it can be corrected at all. A friend of mine once told me "a fish rots from the head down", he couldn't have been more correct in his statement.

Maybe it is less expensive to employ 200 Grade C people and do it right eventually than to employ 80 Grade A+ people who will get it right the first time 95% of the time.

It's always been extremely fascinating to me why so many people in leadership positions aren't always leaders. How did they get there? Was it a natural progression of being great at their job and getting a promotion into management? A lot of the times it is.

When did rewarding people based on personal merits go out of style? Why do many organizations accept or promote mediocrity? Is it intentional or not? Is it because most organizations are not lead by a Level 5 leader?

I'm curious and very interested in your thoughts on Mediocrity vs. Meritocracy in the workplace, respond below or .

Oh and BTW, the Cardinal Path Training was worth it.