Career & Jobs

What Happens To Unsuccessful Nominees In Employee Awards?

Winning and losing is an inevitable facet of life, whether one is competing in the World Cup or choosing a political candidate. In an organizational context, many companies will have “employee of the month” programs to reward those who do exceptional work, but research from the University of Maryland reminds us that those who almost win are often just as valuable as those that do win.

The researchers explore the impact of almost winning on the performance of employees, with a particular focus on the nature of their work with others. The results show that in the immediate aftermath of the awards, the unsuccessful nominees lost motivation, which resulted in them reducing the amount they collaborated with colleagues and especially with the winners. This was particularly likely when the two worked in the same department.

In the long-term, however, the unsuccessful candidates ended up collaborating more with other colleagues, with their collaborative efforts surpassing those from before their nomination.

Employee recognition

Employee award programs are common practices to try and reward good work while also reinforcing corporate culture. While various studies have looked at their impact on those who win, the impact of those who do not is less well understood.

Perhaps understandably, the study found that the glimpse of success means that those who nearly won have a very different psychological experience to those who were never in contention at all. These runner ups may be small in number, but the researchers found that they have an outsized impact on their organization.

“Being nominated itself is an indicator of a high level of capability, skill and performance relative to those who did not get nominated in the first place,” the researchers explain. “That’s why understanding how an awards program is motivating—or demotivating—for non-winners nominees is very important.”

Working as a team

The researchers focused their attention on the impact of nominations on the collaboration habits of those individuals. They looked specifically at how responsive they became to invitations to collaborate and how quickly they responded to those invitations.

They analyzed data from a digital collaboration tool both a couple of months before a large company-wide award was announced, and then again for the six months after the announcement.

“We found that compared to non-nominees, the non-winner nominees have lower collaboration responsiveness to winners following the awards announcement,” the researchers explain. “When they have a higher structural proximity to the winners—for example, they were on the same team or worked in the same office—then the negative impact on their responsiveness was even bigger.”

Over the longer term, however, those unsuccessful candidates tended to have a higher level of collaboration with colleagues in general. To try and understand why this is, the researchers conducted a survey of the workforce after the awards announcement to try and understand how people felt and their personal motivations.

Missing out

As we can perhaps expect, those who just missed out on the award expressed feelings of disappointment and frustration, which resulted in their collaboration with others falling in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

This frustration gives way to motivation in the medium to long-term, however, as they feel compelled to try and do better the next time round and not suffer that disappointment again.

In other words, this motivation tends to cancel out the disappointment in the short-term, and in the longer-term, the motivation persists while the disappointment fades, meaning that those people tend to perform better after the disappointing announcement.

“The non-winner got over it and became more rational,” the researchers explain. “That’s why we found in the long run, losing increased nominees’ collaboration responsiveness.”

Promoting collaboration

As a result, it’s important that managers strive to actively promote collaboration between winners and the runners up in a bid to overcome any tensions or resentment that may emerge between them. These efforts should be particularly focused on the period immediately after the award announcement.

For instance, managers could consider ensuring that those who don’t get the main award are also recognized and appreciated for their contributions and performance, perhaps by ensuring that they have not only encouragement but resources to help them with their work.

This encouragement should be designed to ensure that those who miss out continue to believe in themselves and the work that they do. If managers can do that then they can help to ensure that all nominees experience a boost in performance, not just those who win.

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