Why giving everyone a trophy dumbs down the country
By Lisa Earle McLeod
McLeod & More, Inc.
If you gush over mediocrity, there’s no way to distinguish truly outstanding. If the losers get the same trophies as the winners, what’s the point of even trying? Rewarding poor performance doesn’t make people feel better; it just makes you look like an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between a good job and a bad one.
You’re sooo special, and to show you just how special you are, we’re giving you a trophy.
Of course, we’re also giving a trophy to every other player on the team. It doesn’t matter whether you played or not, whether the team won or lost, or even if you came to all the practices; everybody gets a trophy.
Call me a killjoy — and trust me, many have — but I don’t think giving away token trophies inspires anyone to new heights of improved performance. Nor do I think it builds self-esteem. I also think it’s bad for business, because it sets a tone of rewarding mediocrity.
I work with sales organizations and I can assure you, the people at the bottom of the pack don’t get awards at the annual meeting. Nor does the marketplace give “You’re so special” trophies to companies with declining revenues.
As parents, we’ve long been told that we should build our child’s self-esteem. As a business consultant, I coach leaders to give positive feedback, because positive reinforcement builds skills and confidence. It improves company morale and it encourages people to do more of what they’re already doing right. But if you gush over mediocrity, there’s no way to distinguish truly outstanding. If the losers get the same trophies as the winners, what’s the point of even trying?
Kids aren’t stupid; they know when you’re feeding them a line. And they’re not wimps either. Sitting with the sting of a loss isn’t the worst thing in the world. The pain of losing is often what inspires us to do better.
The “special” movement has gone so overboard with meaningless praise that people, particularly children, have lost the concept of internal pride.
It started with good intentions. Many of us were raised by well-intended, overly-critical parents; people who truly loved their children, yet who tended to focus on the negative, asking why the A- wasn’t an A+, bringing up the strike-out instead of the winning score, and generally being stingy with the compliments. People raised in that type of environment often correctly ascertain that they would have been happier, and probably done better in life, if they’d been given more positive reinforcement. We vowed to do better, so we tell our kids they’re wonderful all the time. The problem is, it doesn’t work.
Rewarding poor performance doesn’t make people feel better; it just makes you look like an idiot who doesn’t know the difference between a good job and a bad one.
The challenge as a boss or parent is to master the duality of praising the inherent worth of the person while giving them accurate feedback at the same time. We need to be smart enough to say, “You’re the best son anyone could ask for, and your team didn’t do so well this season.” Or to an employee, “You’re a smart person. You’re going to have to do better on this project if you want to get promoted.”
We need to tell people the truth, be they kids or colleagues.
Building self-esteem isn’t about pretending that people are winners at everything. It’s about providing people with the internal fortitude to rebound when they fail. It’s about nurturing their spirit and developing their character. It’s about caring enough to say, “When I watch you run down the soccer field, my heart bursts with love because I think you’re magnificent. But the other team won, so they get to take home the trophy.”