Participation trophies

In The Art of Possibility, Roz and Ben Zander write, “Enrolling is not about forcing, cajoling, tricking, bargaining, pressuring, or guilt-tripping someone into doing something your way. Enrollment is the art and practice of generating a spark of possibility for others to share.”

A generous assumption of why participation trophies exist: it balances the all-consuming nature of competitive energy. Instead of only enrolling the winner, every person participating can experience the motivation of being recognized for their work. 

You’d think that sounded simple enough. The numbers say otherwise; in this paper involving 200,000 respondents, 79% of employees who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as a key reason for leaving, and 65% of North Americans report that they weren’t recognized even once [at work] last year.

The challenge with participation trophies is their perceived value has diminished. If everyone gets a trophy, regardless of how they’re showing up, what’s the purpose of each trophy? The recognition no longer feels sincere.

Ben Zander gave his entire class A’s. He says:

After the initial discussion and excitement over the A subsides, I predict to the students in my Friday class that it will not be long before a voice in their heads will whisper something along these lines: 

Why should I bother to go to class today? I already have my A. And I’ve got so much to do; I really need to practice on my own. Anyway, it’s such a large class, he probably won’t even notice.

I tell the students that this is the first symptom of a widespread disease called “second fiddle-itis,” popularly known as “playing second fiddle.” People who perceive their role in a group to be of little significance (second violins for example) are particularly vulnerable to its ravages.

“So,” I tell the class, “the next time you hear the little second-violin melody in your head that says, ‘I’m not going to class because I’m too tired,’ or ‘I have too much to do, and I know it won’t make any difference anyway’—remember that you are an A student. An A student is a leading player in any class, an integral voice, and the class cannot make its music without that voice.”

Your contribution matters. Keep going.

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