How to Avoid Destroying Your Team with Plastic

The world is full of different types of organizations. In some of them, there’s a strict and deep management hierarchy. In those organizations, the process of self-actualization depends utterly on movement toward the top of the corporate ladder. Other companies — generally featuring flat management systems and sunny office spaces — are immersed in an atmosphere of equality and brotherhood. If we try to picture both companies in our minds, for the first one, you’ll probably see a skyscraper filled with a giant and slow bureaucratized corporation, and for the other, a blossoming Silicon Beach startup.

In reality, a group of British scientists have already proven that our world is not black and white in this respect, because the majority of companies balance between these two metaphors: between the mechanism and the family. In other words, there’s a good chance that you are working in one of these types of organizations.

Today, however, we are going to avoid further discussion of the companies themselves; instead, we are going to talk about plastic. Generally speaking, management tends to avoid using material and financial means to motivate employees — a totally correct way of thinking. Instead, they prefer to use various awards, statuettes, and badges to show appreciation for employees’ achievements. When carrying out such motivation programs, however, it’s crucial to follow the rule of “first, do no harm.”

What’s the story behind all this?

Again, two different scenarios materialize in our minds. The first one includes a Manager (a capital “M” placed firmly at the beginning of the word) relaxing in his leather chair. Moving left and right in his uber-comfortable chair, he’s showing off his shiny suspenders and passionately chewing the tip of his pen. An evil plan has almost fully formulated inside our Manager’s bald head. Tomorrow, the middle-ranking lowercase-m manager Anthony will receive a new task: to contact an advertising company and order a box of acrylic statuettes. There’s no thought of wasting money on annual bonuses. In the Manager’s mind, it’s much better — and more expressive! — to reward leading employees with memorable plastic souvenirs. Such souvenirs will always be displayed prominently near the recipients’ computer monitors, not only making the owners of them extremely proud but also pushing other employees to work harder… despite the fact that they’re earning the very same amount of money for their work.

The second scenario features a small company that provides outsourcing services in a relaxed and easy manner. It rents three office rooms in a Class-A business center. Company management is extremely happy with their staff. The director is a motivated and energetic young guy who loves spending time with his MacBook in a soft chair, putting up numerous inverted portraits of Marilyn Monroe and following all the progressive trends.

Today, the director is having a conversation with Anthony, who is twice a Python programmer and now holds the position of CTO. Their discussion is extremely lively and heated. Their idea is to create memorable and unique awards for their staff members. Creativity flies through the air — round or square, glass or crystal, with gold or with silver plates. Let there be an award “For the best scrum master” and another one “For the programmer of the year.” They can even hold a corporate event for this occasion! Maybe it can be held out by the pool? Of course, it must happen by the pool!

Most likely, you are thinking that the first guy, Mr. Manager, is a jerk, while the Marilyn Monroe fan is a great guy. But that’s not the case. Both of them are really the same, and the main reason is the competition they’re creating among their employees.

Why is competition so dangerous?

We’re all well aware that we are living in a highly competitive world. The principles of meritocracy rule modern society. On one hand, it’s totally great, because otherwise we would live in a world cluttered with social categories, castes, slavery, and different levels of opportunities. On the other hand, it’s really bad, because we all spend too much time thinking about our own wealth. This can be seen on the personal level, the business level, and even the state level. “Him vs. me,” “we vs. they,” “friends vs. foes” — the opposition is still there, though “he,” “they,” and “foes” are not presented to us as constant values from the moment of our birth. Move to a higher position in your company and you’ll simply face a new competitor on a higher level. Choose to work for a different company and compete with dozens of other different companies. Move to another city, and in just a couple of years become a fan rooting for a totally different football team in the world championship.

At the same time, magic can often take place in the teams working inside various software development companies. In those organizations, ambitious, well-matched, and highly consolidated teams work together to achieve the highest levels of efficiency while legitimately enjoying their work. According to researchers, the most efficient teams are 10 times more advanced than the worst of them! Even in these highly effective team environments, there’s still one thing that can easily destroy this magic atmosphere of corporate friendship and ruin our high-performing team. We are talking about competition.

What’s the connection with the plastic?

Before answering this question, we have to underline the main disadvantages of creating competition inside a team:

Competition compels employees to cheat the system. If management gives various prizes and awards to the most efficient workers, there must be several criteria involved in such selection. These criteria can be nearly anything, from useless KPIs to managers’ personal opinions. In the first case, numbers can be faked (e.g., an employee who works more hours without achieving more productivity); in the second case, opinions can be influenced more by bootlicking than by excellent job performance. In both cases, the overall quality of the work becomes an afterthought, because only those who are able to cheat the system will become the leaders.

Competition encourages knowledge hoarding. If people own unique information, they can use it as an advantage to set themselves apart and in front of all other workers. This is the law of the corporate jungle. In a competitive environment, sharing such knowledge is the equivalent of the worker using a Gatling gun to shoot his or her own legs. No further explanation is needed to show the low level of efficiency of such teams in contrast with companies in which employees readily share their knowledge and support an open atmosphere.

Competition is fertile ground for hidden games. This is the worst part of it. When faced with competition, people, teams, and departments tend to play hidden games, trying to wound each other and get “the biggest piece of the pie.” They try to displace others from their roles, create clique-like teams, use blackmail, and bring bottles of expensive alcohol to the boss’s office.

Seriously now: what’s the role of the plastic?

By now, you’ve probably already guessed yourself what the connection is. By giving out supposedly harmless plastic statuettes for corporate achievements, you can make a lot of mistakes, creating a foundation for counterproductive competition in even the most efficient and friendly teams. “Josh is the best programmer? Are you kidding me? His code has the highest quality only because I remove all the junk after him!” “Is Peter the best worker of the month? He was sick for three weeks, and I was covering his ass!” “Hailey wrote the biggest number of code lines? Is she going to get an award for that? Next time I will code one word per line, and we’ll see the next leader!”

The final result of all this competitive sniping is really sad. Nobody will fix the code during code review, nobody will want to sub in for sick or busy members of the team, and code listings will become as long as limitless papers made from nothing but empty strings and space. This is a real fiasco, bro!

What is to be done?

Finally, we have reached Chernyshevsky’s favorite section. As discussed at the beginning of this blog post, our world is not just black and white. Because while it’s inevitable that mild competition may take place in some cases, it’s crucially important not to bring it into the work itself. However, if you really want to give your employees something that extends beyond having great memories about working with you, try to follow these important tips:

If you must give out plastic, give it to each and every employee.

Consider statuettes as souvenirs rather than awards. After all, companies don’t give out branded sweatshirts as a reward for good work.

Personalize recognition, and thank your employees for their hard work. Not for their specific achievements, because evaluation can be extremely prejudicial, but rather for their great work, passion, or constant self-development. There’s no better magic word in the corporate world than “thank you.”

Make sure the plastic is really, really good. If your statuettes will be on each and every desk in the company, they have to be impressive. If you don’t have enough time or budget, postpone the effort till you do, or don’t do it at all. As a general rule, if you can’t make something good, it’s best not to do it.

So what should you do if you receive that solitary “Best worker of the year” statuette? Throw it away and forgive your boss, because there’s an excellent chance that his intentions were good. Whatever you do, however, keep that dangerous plastic far away from the rest of your team.

Kate Kudievskaia (author’s bio)

Kate Kudievskaia is excited to be part of Distillery’s marketing team. With a background in education, operations, and sales, she’s known as a proven problem-solver, team-builder, and collaborator. A sucker for sushi, coffee and any dessert with whipped cream on it.

Leave a Reply