All Kids Do Not Deserve a Trophy

As a kid I played soccer and was on some very competitive and skilled teams. There were times we won the championships and got a trophy. There were times we came in second and got a ribbon. And there were times, and I’m embarrassed to write this, we came in third and got nothing. That’s right, NOTHING. How could my parents allow this injustice to happen given that my self-esteem could have plummeted? Surprisingly, it didn’t. And yes, I still love them.

Those were the days when the number of trophies on a kid’s shelf indicated how many successful teams s/he played on. And success was measured by winning games – not by showing up. When did it all change and what impact is it having today?

Showing up to the game is not worthy of getting the trophy just as showing up to work isn’t worthy of getting a promotion or a raise. I was consulting with a company and reviewing their human resource programs to see if they were driving the desired behavior. As I dug into their annual merit program (which consisted of a 3% budget), I noticed the range of increases was 2.9% – 3.1% for all performers. I wondered why they called it a “merit” program unless they felt everyone merited an increase versus paying people based on merit. A $50,000/year salary meant the highest performer earned $1.92 more per week than the lowest performer. That’s not even enough to buy a cup of coffee.  Isn’t this the equivalent of giving everyone a trophy?

In this instance, it is actually a demotivator to your Stars and a motivator to the Laggards which is the opposite effect you want. What this resulted in was low turnover for the lower performers and high turnover for the higher performers. Again, not what you want your human resources programs to accomplish.

When I suggested to one executive that we have a range of 0% to 9% using the same budget for the merit payouts and give most of the money to the top performers and nothing to the low performers, he said, “People will leave.” For which I said, “You are correct, people will leave. And those are likely the people you WANT to leave.” Our job as managers is to not treat everyone equally, but treat them fairly. It’s the same thing I tell my kids as we all have different needs, abilities, and drivers. We don’t all deserve a trophy.

What message are we sending to our kids when the best player gets the same reward as the worst player? What message are we sending to our employees? Fredrick Herzberg looked at how people are motivated and wrote the Motivation-Hygiene Theory in the 1950’s which is the foundation for motivation theories still to this day. In essence, recognition for one’s achievements, challenging work, opportunity to do something meaningful and sense of importance are motivators. The hygiene factors, such as salary, benefits, work conditions, and good pay do not result in higher satisfaction but dissatisfaction when absent. When someone is given a higher than average merit increase, the motivation impact is based on the acknowledgement of their performance and not by the actual increase in salary.

As I work with different executives who are old enough to know what a record player is, they consistently say that this younger workforce has a feeling of entitlement. While I see this, it isn’t necessarily the younger workforce’s fault. When we started giving everyone a trophy, we created the entitlement culture. While this is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed earlier in one’s development, we also need to make sure that the programs in our companies do not continue the trend.

When the winning team gets the same trophy as the losing team, we are not recognizing the winning team. We are recognizing the losing team. Ask yourself, how are you treating people differently, yet still fairly?


 ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bryan Gillette is an executive coach for Torchiana, Mastrov & Sapiro and the founder and Principal Consultant for the Summiting Group with over 25 years’ experience dealing with leadership and communication challenges. He has led human resources, leadership development, and communication functions for several small and large (Fortune 500) companies. With an MBA and BA’s in Organizational Behavior and Communication and a 360 Coach certification, as well as serving as a Vice President of Human Resources, he understands how to apply leadership concepts into the practical world.

As a lifelong endurance athlete, he has cycled across the United States, bicycled 300 miles in one day, and run 200 miles around Lake Tahoe in 76 ½ hours. He incorporates much of what he has learned preparing for endurance challenges into his engaging keynote presentation titled, “Challenge Your Limitations.” From this, participants can take his formula for success and accomplish extraordinary personal or business goals.