THE BLOG
07/14/2014 07:45 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Why Giving Everyone a Trophy Sets Us Up for Failure at Work and in Life

Giving away meaningless trophies doesn't inspire anyone to new heights of improved performance. Nor does it build self-esteem.

The token trophy movement that started in peewee soccer is having a chilling effect on the workplace.

As leadership coach, I routinely encounter leaders who don't give enough positive feedback. This is a problem, and one I help leaders fix.

Yet there's another, insidious problem, that has an equally chilling effect on employee motivation -- meaningless praise.

When you create an environment that doesn't distinguish between poor performance and outstanding performance, it's akin to giving every kid a trophy. It's appropriate if the team wins and it's a group effort. But if when throw meaningless group rewards in equal portion to the stars and the benchwarmers, everyone knows that it means nothing.

Positive reinforcement is important. Whether you're 5 or 55, we all appreciate, and benefit from, external validation. Good leaders and parents know building self-esteem is critical.

Yet I am increasingly finding that the "You're So Special" movement has gone so overboard with meaningless praise that many people, particularly young people, have been cheated out of learning the concept of internal pride. We have millennials in the workplace who now expect to be praised for showing up on time.

The "special" movement started with good intentions. Many of us were raised by well-intentioned, yet overly critical parents. They were often people who truly loved their children. But because of the way they were raised, or because they were afraid that praise would make their kids go soft, they tended to focus on the negative. Asking why the A-minus wasn't an A-plus, focusing on the strikeout instead of the winning score, and generally being very hard to please and stingy with the compliments.

We vowed to do better. The problem is, when you gush over mediocrity, there's no way to distinguish truly outstanding.

People, be the employees or kids, aren't stupid; they know when you're feeding them a line. And they're not wimps either. Sitting with the sting of a loss isn't the worst thing in the world. The pain of losing is often what inspires us to do better.

The challenge as a boss, or parent, is to master the duality of validating the inherent worth and dignity of the person and giving them accurate feedback at the same time.

We often assume that we have to choose between praise and criticism, but we don't. Certainly most of us are smart enough to say, "You're the best son any one could ask for and your team didn't do so well this season."

We need to be able to tell people the truth, be they colleagues or kids. Building self-esteem isn't about pretending that people are winners at everything. It's about providing people with the internal fortitude to rebound when they fail. It's about nurturing their souls and developing their character.

It's about caring enough to say, "When I watch you run down the soccer field my heart bursts with love because I think you're so special and the other team won so they get to take home the trophy."

Lisa Earle McLeod is the creator of the popular business concept "Noble Purpose" and author of the bestseller, Selling with Noble Purpose.

She is one of the foremost authorities on sales leadership, sales culture, and customer engagement. A sought after keynote speaker, Lisa McLeod's clients include Apple, Genentech and Google. She has appeared on Good Morning America and The Today Show and is the Sales Leadership expert for Forbes.com.

Visit www.McLeodandMore.com for McLeod's Sales Leadership tips and videos.