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Why Participation Trophies Don’t Work at Work

They’ve been called the snowflake generation. Some leaders say Millennials and Generation Zs are adverse to hard work. I disagree, strongly. My team and I regularly work with organizations brimming with young people on fire for work. The difference is, younger generations want meaningful work. They’re not content with the traditional transactional work model. Working for decades to make partner or hoping your boss will dole out a bonus is not enough for them. In working with a high performing young team, here’s what we observe:

1. Purpose is essential
Previous generations crave meaning and purpose, but we’ve been trained to accept money as a substitute. Younger generations aren’t having it. They were raised to believe they could change the world, and they’re not going to do a job that doesn’t matter. They’re not only evaluating your purpose, they’re assessing whether or not you’re authentic about it.

2. They’re articulating the unspoken dreams of their parents
The generation who watched their parents put work first for decades only to be laid off during the recession learned a thing or two. They’re not shy about letting people know what they want from work. While many find it unsettling, like generations before them, they are creating a better situation for themselves and those who follow.

3. They know participation trophies are meaningless
When young people move out of their parents’ homes they don’t take their participation trophies with them. You may still have your third place ribbon for track, but they know, they didn’t win. The joke is on the parents who spent the time and money to ensure everyone felt special. Young people see these for what they are, souvenirs.

4. They want to win and be unique while doing it
They don’t want meaningless plastic trinkets; they want real wins. Yes, they were all told they’re “special.” Now they want to prove it. They need to see your company is reshaping the market, or whatever your version of differentiation is. If you want a young person to put your firm on Instagram, it needs to feel special.

5. Consistent meaningful feedback is essential
Instead of waiting until review time; young people want to know how they’re doing now. When you provide quick hits of feedback, it’s performance fuel.  You can also create self-reinforcing feedback loops involving customers and other team members. Live time “how am I doing” feedback like scoring customer intelligence, or assessing call quality gives people confidence.

6. They’re not fragile, but they (sometimes) need help with resilience
When you’re 25, or 35, all you know is what’s happened to you so far. If nothing bad has happened, you may not have a model for resilience. Leaders who share stories of overcoming setbacks provide a powerful model for younger staff.

Generations are not monolithic; everyone is unique. Generations do share common cultural expectations. Reread this list; ask yourself how would your work world have been different if you’d be treated this way in your early jobs? If you’re a leader in the – I did it with no fluffy incentives, their paycheck should be enough camp – here’s a quick reset – We’re in a full employment economy, firms who treat employees well attract the better candidates. Each generation pushes us to do better. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Giving everyone a trophy isn’t required, creating a passionate purposeful workplace is.