A Few Words About Participation Awards

I have noticed a discussion popping up lately. I most recently noticed this while reading the preface to Flying Without A Helicopter, the new book by Joanie Connell launching this week.

In a few pages, Dr. Connell clearly and convincingly makes almost every one of us feel bad about how we have raised several generations of young people, many of whom now inhabit the workplace.

Using real-life experience and research-based knowledge, the author describes how we have systematically trained our children to expect rewards for effort, and not for output.

The best example she uses is the distribution of participation trophies which insure that what one receives, all receives. Rather than focus on achievement according to quality, we look to effort and being present as enough to justify an award. Later in the book, she offers clear solutions, but for right now, let's stay focused on the issue.

Even Castle, my favorite guilty pleasure television series, addressed this issue when Alexis, the adolescent daughter of the eponymous hero, became obsessed about getting into a good college, and roundly criticized her previously prized box full of participation trophies, which she realized do not a strong resume make in a competitive market. This general issue bubbles up to two other places, albeit in somewhat different ways.

In Academia

A recent article by Stacey Patton in Vitae, the Chronicle of Higher Education online publication, entitled "Dear Student - No, I Won't Change the Grade You Deserve" dissects the idea of academic entitlement. This has ignited discussions among faculty members at my institution and elsewhere about how we help students understand the difference between I need and I want. In other words, students want grades that reflect their efforts, rather than evaluate their output.

This is similar to the concept in many lower education school programs that everyone must receive recognition for something, hence the idea of participation trophies and other vague commendations. While positive in spirit as an attempt to recognize that everyone has value, which they do, this stance has also muddied the waters about what is considered achievement.

In The Workplace

We are probably all familiar with the idea of work tenure reflecting value and qualifying one for rewards. The easiest example involves pay scales where years of employment equal pay raises on some type of objectively measured scale. The longer you survive at Company X, the more money you make.

Even if you do not have a compensation package which benefits long-term employees, many small and even mid-size companies shy away from intentional performance evaluations and similar tools, at least partially to avoid upsetting loyal employees of long tenure.

We are also familiar with the issues around motivation and engagement which plague many organizations. It seems difficult to find the link between institutional needs and employee needs. In my thinking, this can often be traced to different sets of priorities and maybe even values.

We often appear to put the emphasis on trying (efforts), rather than doing (accomplishment). Many try to simplify this into the usual corners:

  • Be Rewarded For Trying - Because you cannot control everything that may affect your performance, your effort is worth something.
  • The Winner Takes All - When the whistle blows, you have either scored or been stopped. Only points on the scoreboard matter.

Patton found a common theme in her findings about student perceptions:

"Their feelings about the quality of their work often don’t match the reality of their performance." This fits with the psychological tendency applicable to most if not all of us, often called "self-inflation," where one overestimates their own abilities while underestimating their deficiencies. Here's an example: "I think I created a wonderful report, even if it was on the wrong topic."

A variation of this occurs when we value our own contribution more than the work of another, even though an objective evaluation might give the edge to the other person. We attribute our achievements to our hard work and innate abilities, while assuming that others who achieve bribed or charmed their way into the winner's circle.

As a leader of others, I have tried the two extremes and found both wanting:

  • Winner Take All - Performance standards include a clear criteria and then I hold everyone's feet to the flame. No exceptions, no differentiation. You either make or do not make the cut. This does not promote team building, in spite of some perceptions that making the cut creates some type of bond. Establishing healthy relationships with others is always based on something more than a winning score.
  • Pure Democracy - I have also tried the approach where everyone receives the same rewards, regardless of value. In other words, everyone gets a trophy, which makes all the trophies equally meaningless. This is more peaceful and certainly easier to do, since the leader is not required to evaluate the contribution, but simply acknowledge that it was made. This encourages more substandard performance and does not create growth.

Neither extreme works well, in my experience. Of course, many other possible approaches exist between these two. Whatever we choose should recognize three important things:

  1. One person's contributions, while minimal or sub-standard by an objective measure, might be the very best that individual is capable of producing.
  2. When we view each person as an individual, we often find evaluating their efforts more fairly to be an easier task, because we know the range within which the person is working.
  3. Motivation to succeed at a level varies distinctly from individual to individual.

We help students and employees learn and grow by helping them consistently and positively improve their skills, which is the essence of learning and teaching, We just need to develop and reinforce clear and developmental goals for students, so they clearly understand what they must do and know how to accurately judge their own contributions toward the goals.

Note, this is not an attack on the value of failure or incremental improvement, just an observation that failure should not result in the same reward as success. It is also not an endorsement of sports, where an obvious winner and obvious loser appear at every encounter, but rather an endorsement of thinking about how we reward and what we are trying to accomplish.

Think about your organization and how you try to help people improve performance. Are they all of nothing, everyone wins, or something else? What works best in your situation? What could you change to improve your improvement efforts?

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