When I was a kid in the second or third grade back in the 1980s, I wanted to play baseball. Unfortunately, I did not have the greatest athletic ability, and wasn’t able to play on the school league. Instead, my parents signed me up for the summer T-ball league.
This program consisted of three teams that played each other in different games every weekend. It was geared more toward learning and practicing the basics of baseball. We were still competitive, though. We wanted to win, and did everything we could to achieve it.
However, we never won a single game!
No matter what we did, we were never able to win one game. We tried everything…hustling out on the field to catch every ball, making every hit count, and running as fast as we could to get to home plate. Nothing seemed to work. Scoring a win seemed to elude us. At the end of the season, after the last game was played, we figured that it was over.
Then, the strangest thing happened…
One of the coaches brought out a box of trophies from the trunk of his car. I thought they were for the other team, because they couldn’t possibly be ours. Instead of giving the trophies to the other team, he started handing the trophies out to US!
We lost every game, yet we were still getting trophies!
This made absolutely no sense to me. Even at my young age, I understood the rules of competition: if your team doesn’t come out on top, you usually don’t get a trophy. Even though I had really wished that things were different and we were the victors, I still accepted what happened along with the consequences. I also accepted the trophy that was handed to me…even though I was puzzled by the fact that I was getting one.
The trophy wound up in the closet after a short stint on my bookcase, and after so many years, was relegated to the trash. I remember the dissonant feelings that I had every time I looked at it, though. The trophy really had no meaning for me, since I felt that I really didn’t do anything to deserve it.
What I didn’t realize was, the idea that “everyone should get a trophy” seemed to be catching on then. The officials believed that giving us trophies despite the numerous losses would build our self esteem. I’m sure that many of you will agree that this practice has gotten out of hand in some establishments, and the repercussions of it are not exactly what many people were hoping for. Nowadays, it seems to be common practice at school events to hand out awards to everyone who “just shows up,” no matter how they perform. They can do mediocre work or cut corners, and still come away with a prize. What kind of lesson is this practice really teaching?
Unfortunately, this type of behavior is also prevalent in many organizational structures.
Many of you can probably think of examples of people who were rewarded despite their mediocre job performance. You may have even experienced this first-hand in your organization. The reward could have been in the form of a raise, extra time off, special recognition, or a chance to move up in the organization.
I worked for a company that gave raises across-the-board, not giving any consideration to the performance of their employees. The employees who were known for poor performance and goofing off received the same raise as the employees who gave an honest day’s work. I have also read about and heard stories from others about organizations that allow their people to gain recognition and receive awards for “just showing up” and not fulfilling their expectations.
Giving rewards, when done correctly, is a great way to reinforce the type of behavior that an organization needs from its people. When done incorrectly, (such as in the case of giving everyone a trophy) giving rewards can backfire in many ways:
- It reinforces negative behaviors – If people are being rewarded even though their behavior or work is unacceptable, they assume that since they received the reward, everything is okay, and there is no need to make any changes.
- It can be de-motivating – By rewarding everyone, including those who are slacking off, good talent becomes less motivated to perform at their optimum. They start thinking to themselves, “Why bother?” when they see their coworkers receiving the same rewards for substandard work.
- It can reduce the effectiveness of the leader – The leader can be seen as lacking backbone, unwilling to correct work and behavior issues in the organization, or as wanting to be more of a “people pleaser” than someone who expects excellence out of the people in the organization.
Effective leaders and organizations reward (and correct) their people’s behavior through appropriate means, instead of blindly handing out “trophies.” This includes:
- Setting and communicating expectations – Effective leaders and organizations determine how each individual in the organization contributes to its success, then sets expectations for that individual so the work can be done in a satisfactory manner. They make sure that these expectations are clearly communicated to the individual in the position. Leaders also communicate these expectations by example – walking the talk.
- Instant and effective feedback – Effective leaders do not wait to give feedback once a quarter, every six months, or once a year. They give feedback immediately, while everything is still “fresh” in the individual’s mind. If feedback is given at a later date, the incident in question is forgotten, and the lesson is lost. If you want to change a negative behavior, or reinforce a positive behavior, instant feedback is one of the best tools you can use as a leader.
In Ken Blanchard’s book, The One-Minute Manager, he advises to catch your people doing something right. John Maxwell advises to praise publicly, and correct privately. Effective leaders follow both of these pieces of advice to get the best performance from their people.
- Fairness in consequences – We have all heard the saying, “what is good for the goose, is good for the gander.” This should apply to everyone in the organization when it comes time to deal with the consequences of victories and failures. There will be times when the leader will need to practice discretion because an individual encountered unexpected hardships. However, practicing favoritism or turning a blind eye when a mistake is made by a certain individual will only create contempt and discord in the organization.
Rewarding people in your organization can be a great experience and can improve productivity…when it is done correctly. Always be sure to set expectations, give instant feedback, and utilize fairness, instead of blindly handing out rewards in an effort to make everyone “feel good.”
Blindly handing out awards did not make sense when I was a kid playing T-ball; and in my opinion, it definitely does not make sense for organizations to do it and expect positive outcomes.
Do you agree with this article? Why or why not?
What does your organization do to reward individuals for good performance?
What does your organization do when individuals do not perform as expected? Do they still receive “trophies?”