Participation Trophies: Is Showing Up Enough?

Participation trophies and the workplaceAs you may have heard, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison recently decided to not allow his sons to keep participation trophies they had received from, apparently, Next Level. For Harrison, and his kids, only earned trophies will be kept.

The idea of awarding every child, regardless of talent or contribution, a trophy or medal for merely “being there” is a fairly recent one. In general terms, those opposed to the idea believe that as the sport is about winning the game, winners get the trophies. Some also feel the mentality of “everyone gets something” is warping the expectations of children, giving them the idea that they can have something just for showing up.

Or, as Harrison put it on Instagram, “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”

Pair Harrison’s perspective with the recent bombshell article from the New York Times that claimed Amazon is a terrible place to work. The article paints a very unflattering portrait of the on-line giant—75-hour weeks, people crying on the job, employee-paid travel expenses, warehouse workers slaving away in temperatures beyond 100, and an adversarial environment where the “Anytime Feedback Tool” gives co-workers a chance to bury each other.

And then there’s the annual review process:

Each year, the internal competition culminates at an extended semi-open tournament called an Organization Level Review, where managers debate subordinates’ rankings, assigning and reassigning names to boxes in a matrix projected on the wall. In recent years, other large companies, including Microsoft, General Electric and Accenture Consulting, have dropped the practice — often called stack ranking, or “rank and yank” — in part because it can force managers to get rid of valuable talent just to meet quotas.

The review meeting starts with a discussion of the lower-level employees, whose performance is debated in front of higher-level managers. As the hours pass, successive rounds of managers leave the room, knowing that those who remain will determine their fates.

It’s probably wise to read the article with at least some degree of skepticism. A lot of people hate their jobs and it’s not hard to look at an organization from the outside and decry what appear to be obvious flaws. That the Times can barely conceal its condescension for Amazon’s efforts to deliver even the most frivolous products as fast as possible probably says a lot about their intent with this article.

Still, even with a grain or two of salt, Amazon does not sound like a good environment for anyone used to receiving participation trophies.

But then, few workplaces would be. Jobs are frequently challenging. They tax our skills, training and talents. They require us to put aside our personal interests for (at least) 40 hours a week and contribute to the company’s goals.

In other words, businesses aren’t in the habit of retaining employees who don’t deliver and don’t justify their salary. In the IT industry, we have seen how the “just show up” mentality breeds DBAs who don’t care to learn and who barely keep the lights on. “Entitled” employees don’t put in the effort to improve their skills and make more significant contributions to their organization. Instead, they grumble about the J-O-B, and tend to drive the expectations lower and lower. “Bob doesn’t do much, but at least he’s here every day.”

We frequently have to fix the damage done by DBAs who think showing up is enough. In one case, multiple databases across multiple servers were corrupted when a new SAN was brought online without considering SQL Server database consistency. Or there’s the time a client experienced significant data loss because the DBA didn’t know how to properly do restores. Or…data corruption caused on multiple occasions caused by restoring VM snaps.

And this isn’t about dependability. A hammer is dependable, but someone has to swing it with skill.

The workplace is not a place to go for participation trophies. There’s a good chance James Harrison’s kids will be just fine once they reach the job market. They probably won’t be the “just show up” type.

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