All About Awards

Like a lot of people, I have always been of two minds about awards.

On those occasions when I have won one, I have been delighted to be so honored and thoroughly impressed by the credentials, integrity and intellect of the judges and sponsors. The times I've been passed over are a different story. That's when you have to wonder how petty politics and mental minimalism have come to dominate today's world.

But in all seriousness, awards can be tricky because they are designed to do two things. They are intended to recognize outstanding achievement in the past, and they are used to inspire even greater feats of excellence in the future.

It's this second, motivational aspect that gets sticky. That's because awards can and do change behavior, and in ways that may not be entirely appropriate.

The journalism profession, for example, has recently gone through some hand wringing over the prospect that it has become beset by a "prize culture" in which news coverage is shaped less by concern for the public interest and more by what reporters think will win them a Pulitzer.

According to the American Journalism Review, this year's Pulitzer competition drew more than 1,500 submissions and generated more than $75,000 in entry fees. One has to wonder if all that time, money and energy could not have been better spent in other ways.

I guess that's one way of looking at it. But as I said prizes and awards always make me think twice. And the other way to look at the Pulitzer competition is to say that 1,500 reporting projects went forward motivated at least in part by the prospect of achieving the highest possible peer recognition.

Undoubtedly, those involved dug a little deeper, pushed a little harder and wrote a little better with the idea that a Pulitzer might await them at the end of their endeavors. While most of them "lost" the competition, in fact all of them won--as did their readers--because of their extra effort.

A similar phenomenon occurs with quality awards, the topic of this month's issue. It is important to focus not so much on the handful of winners but on the process that engages all of those who take part.

In his article on ASQ's awards, David McClaskey makes an important point about avoiding a win/lose mentality (see p. 128). By concentrating our attention on key criteria and raising the standards by which performance is judged, awards programs are a benefit to all--both those who win and those who only watch.

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  Miles Maguire

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