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Chasing Institutional Gratification At Work

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

Leslie Knope

We all enjoy recognition from our peers and supervisors, and in an ideal workplace we’d be appreciated for each accomplishment. But, if our only source of work satisfaction is professional awards, we could be setting ourselves up for resentment, conflict, and competition at work that has little or nothing to do with our competence.

Ron Swanson, Woman of Year

In a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope, assistant director, believes she is going to receive Indiana Woman of the Year (IOW) award. Instead, her boss, Ron Swanson, a man, gets the award for a Pawnee park project she initiated and developed. The IOW committee chair tells her that Ron won because they weren’t getting enough publicity for giving the award each year to a woman. They thought making a man Woman of the Year would capture more attention.

Leslie, outraged, gets no work done for an entire week, putting all her energy into scheming to either take the award away from Ron, or at least force him to admit she is the one who really deserves to win. Ron, on the other hand, thinks Leslie is too concerned with what he calls “institutional gratification.”

Although the show carries this situation to humorous extremes, there are some lessons here for real life workplaces.

While many deserving people win awards for their work, it can be as arbitrary and resentment provoking as it is on the show.

For example, a school I worked with gave several Teacher of the Year awards to non-teachers, bypassing dedicated and innovative classroom teachers in the process. Their decision made as little sense as giving a Woman of the Year Award to a man.

Another organization I worked with, plagued with high attrition rates and lawsuits by people of color, somehow won a statewide diversity award, a bitter pill for those within the organization who were fighting for equal treatment and being ostracized in the process.

I have worked with people who feel unworthy without external validation and will go to great manipulative lengths to get it. Like Leslie Knope, they may believe they truly deserve an award and are angry about not getting it, or they may want special compensation for something missing in the rest of their lives. Whatever the reason, their hunt for some kind of recognition has a negative impact on their work and everyone around them.

So what can we do to improve this situation?

It always helps to see the humorous aspects of these illogical award decisions and workplace maneuvers. Laughter makes it much harder for us to simmer with resentment. When we understand that this kind of absurd unfairness happens frequently in all kinds of institutions, we are less likely to feel singled out.

And it is possible to find other ways to feel valued and appreciated. We can recognize our own work and give ourselves kudos or a reward. We can compliment our colleagues for a job well done. If we are managing a team, we can thank and acknowledge them for their good work. In both cases we can be specific about what we are praising them for, which makes it a lot more meaningful.

While we can never make anyone else change, we can understand that because of culture and upbringing, many people find it easier to criticize than to praise and not take this lack of skill personally. We can also find places to get recognition outside of work, to meet our natural need.

Whatever we can do to stay centered, supportive, and focused at work will feel much better than trying to satisfy our own or someone else’s insatiable craving for institutional gratification.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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