It’s Time to Part with the Participation Trophies


Entitlement is defined as believing you are owed special rewards, privileges or treatment. In essence entitlement says, “You owe me because I show up and belong, not because I step up and perform.” Frankly, entitlement is the language of losers. We’ve seen a rise of entitlement—and entitlements—in society over past decades, and the same corrupt sentiment has spilled over into business cultures as those raised with a sense of entitlement aren’t going to easily “flip the switch” and believe they should suddenly start earning it when they enter a workplace. After all, many have a collection of participant ribbons and trophies that were awarded to them as they grew up for simply showing up, regardless of how well they performed. Others attended schools that did away with failing grades in a misguided attempt to preserve their self-esteem; some played on teams where there were no winners or losers because score wasn’t kept, and now expect the same socialistic values to be honored in the workplace.

  • They expect Thanksgiving turkeys because it’s Thanksgiving time, not because they earned them.
  • They think they should get a Christmas bonus because it’s Christmas time, not because they went the second mile in their jobs during the year.
  • They demand a raise because they’ve been there another year, not because they assumed new responsibilities, developed new skills and contributed at a higher level.
  • They feel entitled to the next promotion because they have been there the longest, not because they are the best person for the job.
  • They complain about the lunch you buy them on Saturday because it was the wrong kind of pizza, or whine that the morning donuts didn’t have sprinkles on them.
  • They believe they should be able to participate in the spiff program or contest simply because they are on the team, not because they qualified for the privilege of participating based on past performance.
  • The bottom performer feels entitled to the special favor, or house deal, because he’s struggling, not because he deserves it based on meritorious performance.
  • Top performers don’t think they should have to be at work on time, or attend training—assuming their performance somehow entitles them to abuse your values and diminish your credibility.

I could go on, but chances are you feel worked up enough as you recognize some of the entitled thinking and behaviors described here. If so, you are not alone. I train and consult with a variety of organizations in and outside the automotive industry (banks, non-profits, law enforcement agencies, sports teams, and more) and have never found any that didn’t have some inkling of entitlement that had crept into its culture—primarily because of the pervasiveness of entitlement, and even the promotion of entitlement by schools, media, politicians, parents, activists and more. The following are some pointers to help you reverse entitlement if you have it, and prevent more of it in the future. Some of them may make you uncomfortable. If so, pay special attention to them, because they have something to teach you.

  1. Understand that the best antidote for entitlement is accountability. It’s far tougher for people to become entitled when they’re held accountable for doing their jobs. While I have always had a section or two in my workshops about accountability, a growing sense of entitlement and lack of accountability has gotten so out of hand, I have created a full workshop solely on mastering the art of accountability. That should give you some indication of how important this topic is to your culture, team morale, and your future.
  2. Embrace and build an “earn and deserve” culture. Earn means to acquire through merit, and deserve means to be worthy of, to qualify for. People must understand they are entitled to two things in the workplace: everything they have earned and deserve. Period. Anything above that is a gift they should be grateful for, but should not expect again.
  3. Introduce qualifiers for any entitlements you are now giving away. For instance, if the team sells “X” amount between Monday and Friday they will have earned a lunch on Saturday. Another example would be using one’s past 90 day performance average as a qualifier to participate in any spiff programs or contests. If someone didn’t average “X” over a ninety day rolling average, they haven’t earned the privilege to participate in this month’s perks. Better luck next time; they’re going to sit this one out.
  4. Remember that what people get too easily they don’t appreciate as much, if at all. This is why the prior point is so important.
  5. Redefine expectations for toxic achievers who perform well but abuse values, and let them know that going forward they will be held accountable for two sets of standards: performance and behavioral. Their high production level is not a permission slip to abuse the culture or its core values.
  6. Begin a top performer’s club that recognizes and celebrates the excellent performers on your team with perks or privileges others don’t get. It’s ok if not everyone likes this; you’re running a business not a welfare state, and in high performing cultures you give your best to the best and less to the rest. If the “rest” don’t like it they can step up and earn their share or go somewhere else and take their mediocre performance and “I’m a victim” thinking with them.
  7. Keep in mind that when you give people something for nothing you’re not helping them, you’re hurting them; and, eventually, you help make them good for nothing in the workplace.
  8. Be encouraged by remembering that it’s not your job to make everyone happy. After all, you are a leader and not a clown. Your responsibility is to do what’s right, and to be a good steward of company resources by investing them in those who have earned and deserve them—not subsidizing those who can’t, or won’t do the job.

The bottom line: In high performance business cultures we do keep score, there is winning and losing, and there are no participant ribbons or trophies.

(If you have my book, Up Your Business: Seven Steps to Fix, Build or Stretch Your Organization, I recommend you re-read chapter two, which explains how to replace a culture of entitlement with a culture of merit.)

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Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson is President of LearnToLead, an international training and consulting organization based in the Los Angeles area. After a successful career running a large automotive group, Dave and his wife Rhonda started LearnToLead in 1999. He has spoken in seventeen countries, and gives presentations on average of 120 times per year. Dave is the author of fourteen books; Selling Above the Crowd, No-Nonsense Leadership, Up Your Business, the TKO Series, How to Deal with Difficult Customers, If You Don't Make Waves You'll Drown, How to Run Your Business by The Book, How to Lead by The Book, It's Not Rocket Science, and his latest, Unstoppable: Transforming Your Mindset to Create Change, Accelerate Results, and Be the Best at What You Do. He writes columns for multiple national magazines, and trains organizations in the corporate realm, athletics, non-profit and government. Dave is the host of the energetic and high-impact podcast, The Game Changer Life, that focuses on becoming more focused, more energetic, more effective and living The Game Changer Life. He is the co-founder of Matthew 25:35 Foundation, who brings food, clothing, housing, ministry and education to under-resourced people worldwide. Dave’s common sense, no-nonsense approach resonates well with audiences worldwide, who’ve become worn out by the burden of political correctness.