The latest edition of HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” features a story about the “trophy culture” of youth sports—the awarding of a trophy to any child who participates in an organized athletic activity.

Actually, “participates” is too stringent a standard in one Los Angeles youth soccer organization. According to the organization’s commissioner, anyone whose name is on a roster receives a trophy at the end of the season. Interviewer: “They don’t even have to show up for the games?” Commissioner: “No, they don’t.”

For a 650-kid Florida league, members of the league championship team receive a championship trophy. Everyone else gets a “League All-Star” trophy. Other than the words on the small brass plate on the front of these awards, the trophies are identical. (The Los Angeles soccer league can’t make this distinction since they don’t keep score in the games.) Asked why they were so generous in handing out the goods, the man in charge of the league replied, “We want every child to feel special.”

Trophy culture is, of course, an outgrowth of the 1970s’ self-esteem movement. Now don’t get me wrong. A healthy sense of self-esteem is a good thing, as long as the thing being esteemed is worthy of esteem. The self-esteem movement’s standard, though—exhibiting a pulse—comes up short of being robust enough for my taste. (The LA soccer league seems to have anticipated this objection, since a trophy could presumably be awarded posthumously to kids who got their name on a roster before their (no doubt special) expiration.)

Why am I writing about youth sports in a space ostensibly focusing on matters of business leadership? Because I see disturbing parallels to the way the topic of employee engagement is being dealt with in too many organizations.

Engagement, properly understood, means the degree to which employees are psychologically invested in their work...the extent to which they are disposed to invest extra effort and energy in the tasks at hand. Like genuinely earned self-esteem, this is a good thing.

The problem arises when the standard for engagement is lowered in one of two ways to mean either 1) making instrumental connections by “involving” people through such devices as all-hands meetings and breakout group discussions, or 2) addressing “morale” issues by holding Friday keg parties and promoting Bring Your Dog to Work days.

Such tactics, though, are a distraction. The goal should not be to make work a pleasant place to be; it should be to make it a meaningful place to be. Creating a comfortable and not unpleasant environment are likely to be necessary preconditions for employees to find real meaning on the job. But they are means to an end, not the end itself. Equating engagement with such housekeeping matters is the logical equivalent of handing out participation trophies. It is an abdication on the part of those in charge—of the business or the league—of their responsibility for meeting what their real and considerably more challenging goals ought to be.

A final note. The trophy business is now estimated to be a $1B industry. Annual sales for JDS Industries, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota company that is among the industry’s leaders, have grown from $20,000 to $40,000 when the company was founded in the 1960s to about $50M now. When asked whether the trophy culture is good for kids, Scott Slaten, JDS’ president, replied with a chuckle, “It’s good for our business.” Substitute “engagement consulting” for “trophy business” and the name of a consultancy’s president with JDS’ and that paragraph could pretty much stand as is.

Photo courtesy of and Suat Eman





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