Schools drop “honour rolls” – Should we follow at work?

Posted by on Jan 12, 2011

An article in this morning’s Vancouver Sun is bound to stir up controversy about the decisions of some BC schools to drop the “honour roll” used to recognize top achievements by students. School officials say they’d prefer ceremonies to award students for their “individual strengths and passions”. Principal Chris Wejr of Aggasiz asks “why are we still having huge ceremonies that award a select few and fail to recognize so many strengths, talents and interests of our students?”

Comments posted online to The Sun so far are predictable, including “this is intended to avoid hurting the feelings of students who don’t do anything worthy of recognition”, and “honour rolls give kids a false sense of accomplishment because the real world is much tougher than school”.

I think the critics are missing something that is vitally important, both at school and at work.

When someone’s best efforts are recognized and rewarded, that person learns a valuable lesson about what is required, and is far more likely to repeat it. This is a well-established and proven method of improving performance, whether at work, at home or in the dog kennel. Ken Blanchard’s phrase “catch somebody doing something right” is as important today as when he wrote The One Minute Manager in the 1980s.

Recognition can be a powerful tool but it can bring disaster when wielded by inept users. If we reward the wrong things, the wrong behaviours will be increased and repeated. It goes wrong when, for example, the subject’s mere presence is recognized and rewarded. In general, we get the performance we recognize and reward. When we recognize people for just “showing up”, that’s what they’ll think is expected of them.

The other noteworthy aspect of this change is so subtle that many will fail to see it. Evidence shows that the kind of recognition which works best is recognition of appropriate behaviour rather than recognition of achievement. Why is this so? Simply because only one person can “win” a competition, while almost everyone can do their best. Imagine a world in which not only the winners were recognized and encouraged, but everyone who put in their best effort.

Hockey fans seem to have an innate understanding of this. They cheer the less talented players who bring their “lunch-bucket” to the rink every game. We are all inspired by the “grinders” who put in a tough, gritty performance on every shift, doing whatever it takes to help the team win. This is the kind of effort that makes winning teams, winning companies and winning societies. If we’re not recognizing this kind of behaviour, what are we telling our employees? If you aren’t the best, you’re nobody?

Maybe these schools are on to something important if they can shift from recognizing only the winners to recognizing those who really do their best? We can’t all be stars, but if we all grind out our best performance day after day, think about how much further ahead our schools, homes, companies and society would be.

Copyright 2011 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc.



  1. One more observation is that most star performance in organizations is based on team/group support. There have been studies that have shown that hiring another firm’s star is often an act of disappointment. What was not recruited was the entire supporting system to the star. Hence the Star in the new environment does not excel due to a lack of similar system support.

    • Great comment, Mark. Thanks for the addition.