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‘Everyone Gets a Trophy’ Discourages Greatness

Many of my friends vehemently oppose the common practice of giving every little kid who participates on recreation sports teams a trophy.  I actually think it’s a good idea on policy grounds, particularly for young kids, and here’s why:

Most youth sports leagues want to maximize the number of returning players to (a) keep their programs financially viable, and (b) increase the likelihood that late bloomers stick around long enough to reach their potential and expand the pool of strong players as these rec leagues select travel teams.  League officials can be certain that the most talented kids will return because their great play yields them plenty of individual recognition.  They hit the furthest, throw the hardest, and score the most goals.  They don’t need an MVP trophy to get them to return – the payoff they get from their athletic prowess is more than enough.  Plus, the league doesn’t risk losing the talented to a “competitor,” for young kids typically have only one rec league option for any sport they participate in.  Finally, while not all of the non-standout players will be motivated by getting a trophy that everyone gets, some might.  And if you’re looking to maximize the number of returning players – even if it helps keep a few kids coming back – it’s probably worth it.

But “Everyone Gets a Trophy” in business – the widely-embraced practice of blanket recognition and appreciation for all employees – is really troubling from a policy perspective.

Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. Reinforcement of Mediocrity or Worse.  If you “recognize” everyone for how they perform in the workplace, you run a terrible risk of reinforcing truly mediocre or even poor behavior.  You’re sending a message that everyone’s workplace effort and productivity is sufficient, no matter how one performs at his/her job.  In these challenging times, you’re sending a dangerous message that what everyone is doing is just fine by you, even if it’s not.
  2. Failure to Reinforce Greatness.  By not dangling a carrot for those who exceed expectations and increase productivity and efficiency, you fail to incentivize anyone to go above and beyond.  Sure, you’ll have some employees who blow through performance hurdles because that’s who they are at their core.  But what about those who operate on the fringe of greatness, or those who seem to have what it takes but always seem to be coasting to collect their paycheck? If you rewarded those who perform superbly or go above and beyond with a really fat juicy carrot, you’d likely nudge more people into great performers.
  3. Pissing Off Those Who Deliver the Most Value.  This might be the biggest cost to Everyone Gets a Trophy.  Your most productive employees –that 20% who consistently deliver 80% of the productivity—will see their extraordinary efforts being under-recognized, and they will inevitably start poking around for organizations that reward and recognize great employees for their greatness.  Unlike the rec league kids who have only one option, consistently great employees can go anywhere. This is a group of employees most organizations want to increase – not drive away!

Everyone Gets a Trophy sounds nice on its face.  Surely people would rather be thanked than not.  But what is the point if doing so reinforces mediocrity, fails to incentivize greatness, and runs the risk of driving out your best employees who want to be distinguished for their greatness?

About Sean O’Neil

Sean O’Neil is a workplace and team dynamics expert. He is also Principal and CEO of Bare Knuckle People Management (www.bareknucklepeoplemanagement.com), a sales and management training firm with clients that include the National Basketball Association, Major League Soccer, News Corporation, First Data, ADP, Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Oakland Raiders. Sean and John Kulisek co-authored Bare Knuckle People Management: Creating Success with the Team You Have – Winners, Losers, Misfits and All, which was published in May 2011. Sean has contributed to or been featured in, among others, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Selling Power Magazine, CNBC.com, HR Morning Magazine, Leadership Excellence Magazine, Training Magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Sports Business Journal, and Incentive Magazine. Sean appears regularly on radio and television programs, including Fox Business Network, mostly about workplace communications and management issues. He can also frequently be seen pacing the sidelines of a youth team he’s coaching.

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2 Comments

  1. by Tim Hanlon on

    I could not agree more! Far too often, in the workplace, the rewards peanut butter gets spread so evenly that it feels like ‘participation medals’ for all. This is always a tough nut to crack in the workplace. It is imperative the right behaviours are reinforced – publicly – if hoping for those behaviours to be emulated by others. I have worked at places, however, where the senior leaders’ view of exemplary performance does not match with the on-the-floor-employee view of greatness. How does this get balanced? Rewards can really backfire – especially if senior mgt thinks they’ve found a star and everybody else sees the ‘manage-up’ guy get rewarded for others’ hard work.

    Reply

    • by Sean O'Neil on

      Tim, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am particularly intrigued by your question about a disconnect between senior leadership and an employee’s peers as to what constitute’s employee excellence. Two potential problems in such a workplace environment occur to me: (1) senior leadership’s measures of success have failed them, and what they’re measuring does not accurately reflect workplace success, and/or (2) the power-brokering employees are trying to maintain a culture of mediocrity by banding together against senior leadership’s attempts to reward and promote greatness. In either case, senior leadership would need to investigate and fix. As always, just my thoughts. Thanks again, Tim!

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