Deadly Disease of Employee of the Month: Deming in Education with David P. Langford (Part 11)

Deming Institute Podcast

This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute

Dr. Deming listed 7 Deadly Diseases of Management in Out of the Crisis, and one of the more surprising is #3: Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review. In this episode, David and Andrew discuss the harmful practice of awarding “teacher of the year,” “student of the month,” or other traditional recognition practices. David also offers practical suggestions for alternatives.


Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz, and I’ll be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W Edwards Deming. Today, I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education, and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today’s topic is the deadly disease of having an employee of the month. David, take it away.

Langford: Yeah, this is actually one of my favorite topics. So I thought it’d be fun for us to talk about it today. So…

Stotz: You just may win employee of the month by, coming up with this. Huh?

Langford: There you go. So right away, if you don’t understand any teachings about Dr. Deming or background or things like that, you might be saying what do you mean? And maybe, maybe you were employee of the month one month or teacher of the year or student of the month or whatever we wanna think about in terms of singling people out. So what’s wrong with that? And how could that be a deadly disease? Well, in one of the previous podcasts, we were talking about special and common cause variation. And we kind of went through that and talked a little bit about what Deming called deadly diseases. And he just said that there’s two deadly diseases; treating special cause variation as if it’s common, and treating common cause variation as if it’s special.

Langford: So why is having employee of the month a deadly disease? Because it falls into category number two, you’re taking common cause variation in the system and treating it as if it’s special. And it happens everywhere. It happens in the military, it happens in schools and we’ve been sold a bill of goods years ago in management. And it’s become pervasive in the way people think about what to do. So a manager doesn’t know what to, what to do to motivate their people. And they think their job is to motivate people. So they say, wow, we’ll have a teacher of the year or we’ll have employee of the month or employee of the week. And that ought, that ought to have fixed things, right? Stotz: Student of the week, student of the month.

Langford: Student of the week, make people happier. So I’ll never forget, when my, one of my daughters was in third grade and she came home and she had a certificate as a student of the month. And, I looked at it and cuz she brought it up to me and showed it and she was somewhat proud, proud of it. And I looked at it and then I did, I was thinking, how do I handle this? Because I know the problems that psychologically these things can cause and bullying and all kinds of things that can result from it. And so I looked at the certificate and I looked at her and I said, well, honey, tell me this. So what did you do this month? That was especially great, that sort of singled you out overall the rest of the losers in the class. So and she looked at me and she looked at the certificate, she did that a couple times and then she got this big grin on her face. And then she looked up at me and she said, dad, you know it was my turn.

Stotz: We have 360 students, 365 students in the class and they give it every day. So we all get it at some point, Dad.

Langford: Yeah. So, yeah. So in third grade she saw through this, she knew it’s, this is just this silly game, dreamed up by the people who are running the place. and even as a student is, is if you figure out that this is, this is nuts, can you do anything about it? Well, not without becoming insubordinate or sent to the principal’s office or… right?

There’s obviously something wrong with you if you’ve pointed out a problem with the system about, how they’re managing everybody in the system. Instead, we should be saying, ‘Hey, well, tell me more about that. Why, you know what, what’s the problem with that?’ And student a month, can you be student of the month, nine months in a row?

Stotz: Yeah, that was what I was gonna say. Cuz you could also have an abuse, one abuse of it is just to kind of randomly go through students. Another abuse is constantly giving it to one person.

Langford: Yeah. I always ask people that don’t believe that they’re doing anything wrong or damaging to children with these kinds of things that they’ll say, oh, well, you know I can judge or I can, pick out who’s who’s best or whatever. Well again, can you be student of the month nine months in a row? And I’ve done this for 40 years now and I’ve never had a teacher say, ‘well yes,’ but statistically the answer is yes if you have a student that actually is exceptional and deserving of being pointed out to other people as, as the top student, well, they probably just don’t do that one month out of nine. Right? They’re probably working like that or being like that all the time. And you’re not actually helping them sort of cope with the situation when you’re singling them out above everybody else and then pointing to them as the model.

Stotz: So, and if we go back to the basics and we think about that goodhearted teacher or administrator who’s thought, ‘Hey, I wanna bring recognition. I want to, I want people to feel better about, things and so Hey, employee of a month, what a great idea.’ They’re coming from a good intention, but you know… Tell us more about that.

Langford: Dr. Deming said we are being killed by good intentions. And, that’s exactly right. And he often talked about too, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. If you, if you don’t really understand what it is you’re doing and the effects of it, and maybe you’re just doing what was done to you, passed down from one generation to the next, etcetera, etcetera, and you don’t really understand what it is you’re doing, you’d be much better off just to do nothing. Do none of those things. It’s always fascinating to me, schools that have a lot of bullying also have a lot, lot of this singling people out and pointing them out as either on the top end or the low end of the system, etcetera. And then what happens after school? Well, I’ll show you student of the month. It kind of reminds me of that bumper sticker.

Langford: There’s bumper stickers that say my, my student was student of the month at such and such elementary, etcetera. And then there’s the bumper stickers that say my student beat up the student of the month or beat up your student. I’ve seen those where people are, they’re proud of of that, or they think it’s funny or whatever it might be. This is tampering, with society and with the systems and management and people’s feelings and all kinds of things. And it has long lasting effects that we have no idea what we’ve done to students 60, 70 years later.

My own mother who died at 86, she often would tell a story about, that she really loved to draw and etcetera, etcetera. And then she got into an elementary classroom and they were in an art class and they were supposed to draw something.

Langford: And, teacher chose only the best drawings to put on the wall. And these, these are the best drawings. From that point on, she decided she couldn’t draw. And for the next 80 years, she would not ever even attempt a stick figure or anything because of that one small instance where we, when to hold somebody up and say here, why can’t you be like this person? And it’s very damaging. So what, what to do instead, right? Yeah. What are we doing instead? So let’s say that you’re in a classroom and you do have somebody doing some something exemplary, whether that’s writing a paper, making a drawing, performing on a musical instrument or whatever it might be. And, instead of pointing them out and giving them some kind of an award or student of the month award or whatever it might, one thing that you could do is honor them by allowing them to share what it is they’ve done.

Langford: I got this idea actually from Dr. Deming, but Hey, here’s something really exemplary. And the way I would approach it is I would come back to that student and say, I really like what you’ve done here. This is, this is really amazing. Would you be willing to share with everybody else in the class, how you did this? How did you work this through? Now, that’s much different than me coming in and saying, oh, this is the student of the week. And I’m so I’m so proud of Johnny and da, da, da, da, and all the rest of the students in the class look at that and say, well, obviously he’s brown nosing the teacher and or they come up with some kind of a reason about why you’re doing that.

Totally different if I say, Hey, in this last project, there were several really interesting projects and I’ve asked a couple people if they’d share what they did and how they did it and how they worked that through. And they’ve agreed to share that. And so maybe they read their short story or whatever, but then we’re gonna ask them, well, how did you do that? How did you think that through and how did you create the plot and what did you do to do that? Well, when you’re honoring somebody in that way, the rest of the people in the class are sitting there listening to that, and they’re thinking, ‘oh, oh, that’s how they did that.’ Right? It’s not just saying, oh, you’re, you’re just, you’re just an innate great person. Right? You actually did something that enabled you to do something great.

Langford: And so other people in the class could start to say, ‘oh, I could do that.’ And it’s an amazing thing. Like in elementary schools, something so simple as a student says, well, the way I did this is I found a place at home that was quiet and I made sure I went there every day and worked on this paper in that quiet place.

Well, we could now take that special cause, right? And we could transfer that common cause. And we got a discussion in a class, Hey, everybody in the class, think of some quiet place that you could work, or you could do something. I remember one elementary school, there was one, one child that consistently kept doing really well. And they said, well, how do you do this? And he said, well, I got a desk at home. And it was a very, very poor school. And, kids were coming from very, very poor families, etcetera. And teacher found out that almost only one child out of 30 had actually had a desk of their own at school. So she started asking the students, what can we do about this? And students came up with, I thought was an ingenious idea. And they got old cardboard boxes and they all created their own desks.

Langford: And that became a class project. And everybody took their own desk home and was information that goes home to the parents that says, Hey, it’s really great. If your child spends some time at their desk each night when they’re doing their homework or getting caught up on things or what they’re working through. So special causes are not always bad. Sometimes they can teach us things that can be applied to the entire system that can make a big difference.

Stotz: And, so what I wanna understand now, let’s just imagine that, okay, we start to kind of celebrate something about a student. I have a student of mine in my ethics class that I teach and that guy did a picture of the whole class on one big piece of paper and he laminated and he gave it to me. And it’s just amazing. Now it’s not the way I think, cuz I think more linearly, but he really liked pictures. But for the people in the class and others that I’ve shown it to, it really helped them kind of pull it all together. So that was, sharing, trying to get him to share, what he’s doing.

Langford: But it’s not just what, what he did it has to be how he did it. Right? That’s what you have to get them to share. Otherwise it comes off as an award. I’m awarding this person because I’m gonna, I’m gonna get, have them come up and share that they did this great thing. Well, the thing is great and I’m sure everybody in the class could see, wow, that’s, that’s really awesome. But if you want to transfer that to other people doing great stuff, they have to have kind of some insight about ‘how did you do that?’ And would you be able, willing to sort of teach side class on how to do this for other people that might wanna do this?

Langford: I think that’s, that’s a fantastic honor. You’re still honoring that individual and rewarding them in a way. If you wanna think of it that way, because think what you’ve done, you’ve taken the class time of everybody to allow this one individual to share something. Well, that’s a great honor. It’s a huge honor within that. But as a teacher, you want a large number of the other students to start to be able to do these kinds of things, right? You’d like to see the same level of development, same level of capability, with a lot of other people. So you have to think about, well, how are we gonna get there? Well, one way to get there is to have these students explain it.

Stotz: And you can imagine an employee of the month. I know how it goes. in companies that people are like, ‘oh my God, tomorrow’s the deadline for employee of the month? Who should we do?’

Langford: ‘We gotta, we gotta cram for employee the month.’

Stotz: Yeah so the point is, is that, a lot of times just like performance reviews, it’s just some mad rush at the end. Is what you’re saying that instead of doing an employee of the month type of reward, that what we should be doing is incorporating that in our daily life, instead of saying, incorporating, seeing things that are happening that are valuable for the whole group and bringing that to light on a regular basis, rather than setting on every month, we’re gonna do this or something like that. How would you describe it from that perspective?

Langford: Yeah. I thought of another example. I remember one time my flights were all messed up and connections were bad and I was supposed to start a seminar at, for the military the next morning and I was actually staying on the base hotel and so I got in really late. It was like one o’clock in the morning or one thirty and then I had to get up and I was tired and exhausted anyway. So I go to check in and this person that’s checking me in is, they’re doing a really great job and, talking to me and everything else. And then I happen to look up on the wall as employee of the month. And I can’t stand it, I have to say something. I said, ‘wow, I didn’t, I didn’t realize I was talking to employee of the month.’ And she got all embarrassed and everything. And I said, so what did you do this month? That was so awesome. And she said again, she said, ‘it was my turn.’

Langford: So if you think about it, all the money spent making the picture, giving the honor. They probably had some kind of award ceremony where they had brought all the employees in and you, you had to be there. And then she gets announced as employee of the month, and are you happy for the employee of the month? But immediately psychologically. And that’s what Deming talked about with profound knowledge is psychologically, you start to think about, well, I worked hard this month, and the person next to me, I know was working really hard this month. Why, why didn’t they get employee the month? And so then your mind immediately starts to wonder, oh, well it’s gotta be some kind of game or there’s something going on. Or the manager just likes her that there’s some kind of sexual thing happening or all kinds of crazy stuff can happen.

Langford: But if you took the exact same thing where you said we have an employee and things were crazy one night and this person handled it with grace and ease and organized things and everything. And I’d like so and so to explain to us, how did you do that? How do you cope with that? How did you sort of hamper down the angst that was coming your way and how did you deal with that? And what did you think of, and you could actually learn something from somebody who’s done something really exemplary.

Stotz: You could imagine that person saying, well, what I did is I stepped from out being, I stepped from behind the counter and I went to the person that was most vocal. And I talked to them about where are you going? ‘Yeah, it’s a birthday I’m trying to get there. I’m so frustrated. I’ve been delayed’ and other, okay. I tried to listen to them and try to, then, if I could convince that person to just hang on or whatever, and that type of thing is the type of thing that we could learn from it. So maybe I can summarize what, what I’m taking away from it. The first thing you talked about was the idea of treating a common cause as a special cause the employee of the month, when in fact, it’s just a rotation in that case really.

Stotz: You also talked about the idea that, be careful because signaling… Singling out one person can lead to bullying. If you put someone on a pedestal, someone’s gonna say ‘I’m gonna knock ’em down.’ So that’s also kind of an unintended consequences of that. And then you also highlighted, this one I thought was interesting was the impact on non recipients, how do people feel? And that didn’t get it. And, now you also talked about the idea of maybe an alternative is letting someone share, you see something impressive, interesting, different, let them share. And in particular you said, have them share how they did it, not what they did, but how they did it so that people can learn. Because yeah, if, if a guy started sharing how he did this drawing and stuff, it may not mean that much to me cuz I’m more linear.

Stotz: But if he talked about it, you know what, instead of talking about what he did, if he talked about, well, I thought, how do I make these connections between this? And I did it through this, but you could do it through that. And then you also talked about honoring and rewarding, and trying to give people a chance to share. And then the last thing I thought about what you said is of an employee saying, ‘but wait a minute, I worked hard this month too.’ is this just favoritism? Is this just a game? Is this just a random thing? Those are…

Langford: Maybe I should only work hard when the manager’s watching.

Stotz: Exactly. exactly- how do I game this thing? All right. Well, anything you would add?

Langford: Yeah, just, you made me think of a, another quick story, but in one of my seminars with teachers, we’re going over this very concept and I was trying to get them to think about ways that they could operate differently to optimize their whole class or the school, etcetera. Anyway, at the break, a teacher came up to me and he said, oh my gosh. He said, this happened to me. I said, what do you mean? He said, ah, he said, well, I got outta college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And I ended up getting a job at, selling insurance at this insurance company and everything. Well, they had all these extrinsic rewards and he said at, at first it was, just really great, sell so many policies and you could win a trip to Aruba and you, you can do this. And then they’re always having to dream up, dream up a new, a new cuz you have to keep upping the ante if you want to keep seeing people sort of jump through the hoops to get there. He said after about five years of that, he said I was so sick of playing that game and being manipulated. And he said, and basically I had won everything that they could come up with.

Langford: And I just got to thinking about what’s the, what’s the, what do I really enjoy? And what’s the really purpose of being here. And he said, I quit and got my teaching degree. Now I’m a teacher and I make half as much money or less than I did before. And he said, but I’m happy. This is a rewarding profession of what I’m doing. And I don’t wanna see this same kind of manipulation coming into the system. He said that I’m kingly aware of this with my own students. And ‘is the administration trying to bring this kind of thinking in to manipulate me’ cause he’s been through it.

Stotz: Yep. So to wrap it up, I think I’m just gonna challenge the listeners, the viewers, if you’ve got employee of the month, if you’ve got student of the month, if you’ve got teacher of the month going on, this is permission to start questioning it, start discussing it, start thinking about alternatives because there are many, many challenges that David’s raised today. So David, on behalf of everyone at Deming Institute, I want to thank you again for the discussion. I think it was very interesting for listeners.

Remember to go to to continue your journey, David, what’s the best way that people can contact you if they wanna learn more,

Langford: Probably the best way and the quickest way is just to go to our website, which is at

Stotz: Great. This is your host Andrew Stotz, and I wanna leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming. People are entitled to joy in work.

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