The trouble with business awards

By Neil Patrick

Right now we are in the grip of the annual business awards season. Everywhere we turn, someone is announcing they have won this award or that award. If you are one, I congratulate you. Sincerely.

There is no better feeling than seeing our work recognized and appreciated by others.

I’ve picked up a few awards in my time. And been a judge too. So this post isn’t sour grapes from someone who feels hard done by. It’s just that I have some niggling worries about the true motives, purpose and value of awards.

A spate of award announcements on social media made me think about whether these things really matter very much and even why they exist at all.

  1. Awards are a clever business model
The real raison d’etre of most awards isn’t to encourage excellence and recognise success, although all awards can claim with impunity that this is their purpose. The sad truth is that awards exist primarily to increase the profile and coffers of the organisers (any benefits to winners are secondary to this goal). Awards have become a business in their own right.

In the UK alone today there are over 3,000 business award events every year. This is a booming industry. And with categories increasing at each award event, it's getting ever easier to win one of them.

If we assume an average of just 20 awards per event, that's at least 60,000 awards being made each year.

Business isn’t generally very glamorous. And awards exploit this reality by providing a bit of glitter and razzmatazz for people whose daily work experience is often rather grey and routine.

It’s a really clever way too to extract money from businesses year after year. Here’s the menu and ticket prices for an award I chose at random this morning:

A VIP (sic) table for 12 costs £519 a head. If you’re a cheapskate and you are taking just four guests, it’s £695 each. Small beer to a big business. A no-go zone for a small one. Mind you, that price includes half a bottle of wine per person, (which they are going to need to get through the three hour round of envelope opening, applauding, handshaking and grinning at photographers).

Granted this event is being held at a top London hotel. It’s not a cheap venue. But I could host 12 of my friends at the same hotel for a private dinner function for just £95 each, according to the hotel’s own website.

Now for the clever bit; if I invite you to a business dinner at these prices, the chances are you’ll decline. If I invite you to a business dinner AND I tell you you have been nominated for an award, the chances are much higher you’ll accept. I will sell a LOT more seats and make a LOT more money in the process.

And no doubt, you’ll want to bring some of your friends/clients/colleagues to share your moment of glory.

  1. Awards encourage complacency
Awards themselves cost almost nothing to produce. Yet who wouldn’t like to win such a glittering prize? It makes us feel great. That’s human nature. But it can also blind us. It can become self-vindicating. And by extension, an inducement to keep on doing the same thing. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent. It potentially acts as a blockage to critical judgements about our future.

  1. Awards are usually relative not absolute
As the awards circuit has grown and grown, so it becomes more and more niche. We end up with ever more awards for ever more ‘specialized’ areas. First we take a geographic region, like a country or state. Then we apply a sector filter. By these means, in every category, the competition is diminished to a handful of candidates, especially if you demand that entrants provide an exhaustive submission describing why they deserve to win.

If the candidates list is still a bit long, we can always overlay another category like small, medium and large. Through this process, we narrow the contenders down to such a small field that most people have a more or less evens chance of winning something. So the majority of people go home feeling great, with a glittery trophy/plaque/certificate, eager to tell the world next morning on social media about this great news. And by having runners up, we can even encourage those who didn’t win to enter again next year.

  1. And the winner is…
Then we have the selection process. These can vary a lot. Sometimes there’s an ‘expert’ panel of judges. Sometimes, it’s judged on some superficial business data. Whatever the process though, we have the same situation. The judges’ decision is final. It’s not transparent (even if the judging criteria are made public) or democratic. 

Rarely is there any sort of benchmark or quality bar applied. If it was, there would be years in which no-one made the grade and no-one won an award. Except that never ever happens. Someone HAS to win each category.

  1. Awards don’t really change anything
Awards are great. We can put a cool logo on our website. Frame the certificate on the office wall. Post pictures of us grinning on stage, trophy in hand. It’s all a ruse though.

In reality it means nothing at all. It’s just ego massage.

An award doesn’t make us better. In fact it risks deluding us that we are better than we actually are.

If you want proof, and you have won an award recently, just answer this question honestly. “What did you do differently as a result?” Because if you didn’t do anything apart from brag about it, the experience did nothing to improve your business. In fact it probably risked making you a little more complacent.

And if you want even more proof, please tell me about an award you know of which satisfies these criteria:

  1. It has no gala dinner.
  2. Its judges’ assessments are transparent and/or made public
  3. It has just a handful of categories which are not tiny niches.

That’s the rub. Awards are no more than a way to spend our money to make us feel good. They don’t make our business any worse. But they probably don’t make it any better either.

There's really no contest when everyone's a winner.

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