Recently, a Maryland middle school hosted a party with pizza, soda, games and a DJ titled “Academic Achievement Celebration.” Based on the theme of the party, it should not have been a surprise that there was a performance level threshold to achieve to be invited to the party–which was straight A’s on the report card. Students who received lower marks were reportedly not allowed to participate in the pizza party.
Some saw the event as an appropriate reward for a job well done and an incentive to work hard, while others branded this as exclusionary and unfair. There was concern for the students who would not attend that they may feel bad for being left out of the fun. A large number of parents preferred to give everyone a trophy versus recognizing top performers, and created a fair amount of noise to change the performance criteria for attending the party.
Yes, let’s take away incentives for high performance, reward everyone and see how that works out.
Now, let’s fast forward ten years into the future when the same middle school students graduate college and enter the workforce. Are they going to be motivated and have the drive to out-perform their peers? Perhaps it’s President’s Club, Quarterly bonus, high-performance rating, promotion, compensation, or a new job that
is at stake–do they tap into their talent and work ethic to win the prize over the competition? Or are they just waiting to get their slice of pizza like everyone else? How can we be the leaders in science, math, innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship if we remove competition and high-performance recognition from our schools? After all, the U.S. put the first man on the moon as an outcome of winning the race to space against the Soviet Union.
More and more, we see HR organizations changing their recognition and rewards programs to cater to the Millennials, and I understand why. The people joining the workforce today bring with them boxes full of trophies (deserved and undeserved) as well as an empty box they are expecting to fill up at their new place of employment. Somehow we sucked the competitive spirit out of our youth, and we will pay for it later in business.
Growing up, I learned many things from my father that I apply in my life today.
Work harder than everyone else and you will be rewarded. Winners never give up; they just dust themselves off and keep trying.
However, the greatest lesson I learned was not how to win but how to lose. How to fail but yet still become stronger and better. I remember him saying that life is a series of hurdles and failures, but it’s how you overcome the failures and hurdles that will determine success. And everyone needs to understand the difference between winning and losing.
What does your rewards and recognition program look like? Are you recognizing and developing high performers or rewarding everyone? The easy answer is to cater to the new workforce as the Baby Boomers exit, but is that the best approach to drive the success of the business? This is an emotional hot topic, and very easy to debate both sides, but one that needs more discussion in board rooms.
I believe the competitive drive is alive in all of us whether taught to us at an early age or not. It is the responsibility of every leader to inspire their team and tap into those competitive juices–to reward and recognize top performers while helping others strive to be the best. Also, to help your employees fail, and then help them get back on their feet to overcome that failure.
Your homework is to go back and audit your recognition program and see what side of the fence you land. Look at your leadership programs to see what attributes and leadership philosophies are being taught. Find that balance between what motivates different generations and how they are recognized, but do so without losing the competitive drive across the organization.
If you do not know where to start, try hosting a pizza party.