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Should You Make Everyone a “Winner”?

By Derek Irvine

Recognize This! – Social recognition is about creating “winners” who are strong contributors to the organization, not about creating “participation trophies.”

As recognition consultants, a question we sometimes hear is whether social recognition is just another flavor of the “everyone gets a trophy” or “participation medals” mentality. Questioners are often worried that these practices reward employees for just showing up, create an entitled rather than performance-driven workforce, or encourage other negative consequences. On all points, my response is an emphatic “Not even remotely.”

Social recognition is a valuable solution that, along with a comprehensive approach to the human experience at work, reinforces the positive contributions that everyone makes to the success of the organization. And it only makes sense to acknowledge and praise these accomplishments across the entire organization.

Although comparisons like the one above are tempting, they often fail to capture the fundamental ways that effective organizations motivate their employees across the performance spectrum. Where else does the “trophy” analogy fall down?

Unlike the playgrounds and youth sports leagues to which the mentality is most frequently ascribed, organizations have a say in who gets to “participate” through attraction and selection practices. The decision won’t be correct 100% of the time, but by and large, the employee base will be comprised mostly of individuals who can bring their talents, skills, and experience to bear on contributing to organizational success.

There are clear benefits when business leaders emphasize and recognize the ways that people apply particular attributes to accomplishing and improving their work and teams.

To be sure, all of this is not to imply that an organization will hire all top-performers. That’s simply unrealistic, and it may also not be effective even if it were theoretically possible. For every organization, there is a distribution of performance, and likewise, a distribution of the types of contributions individuals can make spanning many differentiated roles. Recognition can be tied to these many and varied contributions (using specific, timely, and frequent communication).

While everyone may contractually get a salary for “participating,” recognition serves as a differentiator to call attention to specific and impactful contributions. The nature of performance within organizations is also a crucial distinction when we talk about “trophies.” Despite frequent sports analogies and metaphors, performance is a more nuanced phenomenon. One person’s successes do not necessarily take away from another’s chances for success, as it may in typical competitive contexts of “winners” and “losers.” Notice throughout this post that I have used the term contribution. If we compete to contribute rather than to win, our organizations can become more successful. With social recognition, there is simply more opportunity for recognition of those contributions to go around.

While many people do “win,” those accomplishments do not occur at the expense of others. Instead, others can join in and congratulate, raising the overall rate of “winning” over time through social sharing within the organization. It simply makes strong business sense to spread recognition around socially, when that recognition is tied to contributions that align to core values and the mission or purpose of the organization. But like any other solution, the impact and ROI will depend on how the solution is implemented.

How have you seen social recognition contribute to winning performances at work?