Rewarding Any Bit Of Intiative

I have been thinking about performance awards for employees a fair bit lately in the context of our cleaning staff. Our building has three different people assigned to clean it. One guy is responsible for my office, another is responsible for the basement and another takes care of the lobby and seating area. The shop area we have to clean ourselves since there is just too much potential for the wrong thing to get tossed out.

What seems to reinforce the low status of theatre in the Great Chain of Being is that the newest person hired is assigned to clean the lobby and seating area. Yes, that’s right, the person with the least experience is assigned to clean the area in which my organization interacts with the community. I have no idea why this is but I have been cautioned against pushing too hard in getting it changed.

The technical director’s theory about why we are a training ground is that perhaps each person is expected to clean X square feet a day and it is easier to gain experience cleaning the wide open space of the lobby and aisle versus the same square footage across individual offices.

Whatever the case may be, the results are inconsistent cleaning job except in one unerring activity. I haven’t been able to get any of them to regularly dust even the most obvious spots like the tops of the banisters and the 100 foot ledge in front of the mural. I know they are instructed to keep the area clean. It just never happens as it should.

In the last few months, the building supervisor told me that the guy newly assigned to clean the basement is excellent. Given our past experience, that didn’t seem like it would be hard to achieve in comparison so I was pretty skeptical.

But I happened downstairs just before I went on vacation and saw the guy was cleaning the dirty fingerprints off all the doors. In all my time here, that has never been done by the cleaning staff. Since my return I have wandered around the basement and noticed that nooks and corners are now looking neater and spiffed up.

Finally we have a guy who sees things that need to be done and is doing it. He is also making note of things that are broken and suggesting they be fixed. This proactive approach is no small matter because the basement contains our green room, dressing rooms and dance studios. These areas get the heaviest daily use and are the fastest to become soiled. So having these rooms look good when guest artists and renters use the facilities goes some distance in creating a good impression.

I know that there are awards given out to buildings and grounds people. While I can’t submit a nomination, I am resolved to talk to someone who can about putting his name in. As I have been thinking about doing this, it occurred to me that saying someone got the award for excellence in janitorial service at the ceremony doesn’t really provide an example for others to emulate. I’ll admit, getting an award for wiping the finger prints off doors doesn’t sound like a behavior you would strive to model either.

I am discovering that taking that sort of initiative is a rarer thing than I imagined among people at large. Janitorial staffs are hardly deserving of being singled out in this regard. When I was growing up, I thought only people who performed extraordinarily and heroically got awards. Now I realize there is a great deal of worth in doing the mundane very well.

In fact, I think this is one of the lies our educational system perpetuates along with the destiny altering power of your permanent record. Throughout your childhood and higher education, those who have made the most extraordinary achievement receive awards. Certainly, there is value in this because you don’t get to the moon by mediocrity. But generally once you graduate and are in the real world, the grades you got in school are an invisible factor in relation to how valuable you are to your company, family and friends.

There is certainly no substitute for brilliance, but making the choice to take the initiative is within the power of pretty much everyone. In school, it is often the people who added hard work to a special quality who get rewarded. The vast majority were never in the running despite hard work because they lacked that special quality.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me in the professional setting, it is extremely important to reward those who make the choice to go beyond the minimum expectation because this is a reward the vast majority can obtain on their own merit. I am not referring to a feel good reward for everyone, I am talking about providing incentive in order to receive a higher standard of service that everyone can provide.

I will say, there is a part of me that is disappointed that I even have to suggest this. I mentioned earlier that I am recognizing that doing the mundane well is commendable. That is because I have been coming from a place where I expected a certain standard of behavior as a norm only to realize that standard was actually abnormal. Frankly, I wonder if I am not making this suggestion out of a mild sense of desperation to raise thing to a place I consider normal before it sinks any further.

Prior to visiting China I remember reading that saying thank you when receiving some service or polite gesture might be seen as insulting because good service is expected and expressing appreciation implies otherwise. So I wonder in contrast about the United States. Are ubiquitous statements of thanks and tip jars on every counter creating an environment in which expectation of more than the minimum requires some sort of recognition?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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