Nearly every year, I see at least one negative message on social media about individuals who have received some of our more visible professional awards or recognitions. Whether it’s a blog post or a tweet, the gist of the message is that some of those recognized are overhyped, undeserving self-promoters. While I believe expressions of vitriol like those are not only unproductive but hurtful to the people who have won these awards, I can also understand the impulse behind them.
Professional awards embody a vocation’s values. But what message is sent when the majority of awards recognize a single large innovative project or publication? When most recognition is for individual achievements, what does that say about how our profession views teamwork?
As much as we might wish to believe librarianship is unique, it is still influenced by the same social forces as other professions. Many fields provide the greatest recognition to the individual genius, the innovative leader, or the disruptor. While this is clearly a problem, I would suggest to those who seek to denigrate award winners that they should hate the game, not the player. How can we change the systems that recognize certain types of work over others?
Lionizing individual innovators and leaders over library workers who do great work every day can be tempting. But our libraries could not function without both types of individuals, and, in most cases, many different working styles are needed to make any project a reality. We should consider how we reward reliably strong performers in a way that values both teamwork and individual accomplishments.
When recognition is for individual achievements, what does that say about how our profession views teamwork?
Managers should think about which employee and team qualities are truly important to their organization and develop ways to recognize staff and teams who exemplify those values. A team at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that rewarding high performers can lead to improved work performance even from those employees who are not recognized, so acknowledging the right employees can provide broader benefits to the organization.
Unfortunately, research suggests that standouts are often rewarded with more work. One study found that high-performing employees were given larger workloads than their peers, something many of them came to resent. However, that resentment often centers on their less-productive colleagues when the real problem is a lack of leadership from managers to address the issue of unequal workloads.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with recognizing innovative projects, but it’s also incumbent on each of us to consider how we reward consistently solid work that perhaps is neither flashy nor focused in areas that are currently trendy. The Pearl Award, given annually by Oregon Library Association’s Public Library Division, recognizes a library worker who “agitates, makes change over time, and is highly valued.” It honors someone who has not done just one amazing thing but has made valuable contributions to their library or the profession throughout a longer career.
Everyone deserves to feel their work is valued, whether it’s with a formal award or a more informal expression of appreciation. The chair of a committee I served on gave each member a personalized, handwritten thank-you card at the end of the year, and a supervisor once made me a certificate of appreciation for an assessment project I’d put a lot of work into. These small but meaningful efforts can provide validation and engender significant goodwill.
Recognition is not a zero-sum game but an infinitely renewable resource. Providing the validation a library worker needs to feel appreciated often takes little effort. We can easily honor many kinds of valuable contributions to our libraries and our profession.