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Study Finds Teams Suffer When Everyone Gets A Trophy

Your team has just completed a highly-successful project, and you played a big part in making it happen. Now it's reward time, and you'll surely be singled out for praise and recogni...heeeeeey, why is everyone on the team getting the same trophy?!

Welcome to management in the 21st Century, where everyone on the team gets the same amount of acknowledgement for a job well done! A new North Carolina State University study, however, finds our "everyone gets a trophy" team culture isn't motivating work teams very much.

In fact, the NCSU study concludes that rewarding individual workers is what boosts overall team performance. Maybe now we'll all get our turn to feel like Sally Field at The Oscars. Finally!


Managers, you need to let your workplace stand-outs stand up to receive the accolades they so desperately deserve while their teammates sit there and watch it happen! I know, I know: the Millennials on your work team wouldn't be very happy about it.

This is the workplace not preschool, however, and they might be surprised to discover to extent to which watching their co-worker win recognition motivates them to do an even better job! From the official press release:

"In contrast to much of the conventional wisdom that recognizing individuals might somehow hurt the success of the team, we found that recognizing individual team members helps teams in two important ways," [NCSU professor and paper co-author Bradley] Kirkman says. "First, team members observe one another's behavior and set out to emulate the success of their team's top performer. Rather than stimulate resentment in a team – as might be the case with financial rewards – public recognition of high performers actually motivates a strong desire to succeed in the rest of the team members. We call these 'recognition spillover effects' because they transfer from one team member to another.

"Second," Kirkman adds, "because each team member is changing his or her behavior to match the actions of the most successful team member, the performance of the whole team rises. And we found that these spillover effects are magnified if the reward recipient is someone who is central to the team – i.e., someone that other team members often turn to for assistance."

When I was a Gen X kid, this "recognition spillover effect" was called "Jenny just won the blue ribbon in the 100-yard dash at grade school track day, and now I'm going to beat her in the 200-yard dash!" Then I'd push myself to win, because Jenny. She got to stand on the Olympic-style winner's platform (yes, we had one) grinning as she clutched her blue ribbon in front of all her classmates. Please, clap.

Now it was my turn to have a moment in the sun! Okay, maybe I didn't see Tammy sneaking up on my left, but I still gave the 200-yard dash my all and managed to come in second place. Because motivation. And when I made it on to the winner's platform, it felt like a true accomplishment.

Now we learn that watching someone else ascend the winner's platform at work can motivate an entire team of adults to be even more productive. Because human nature.

Just make sure the reward system is fair, managers. The researchers encourage companies to reward all teams in the same way. Team leaders should also make sure awards are based on the work so nobody can scream, "teacher's pet!" Don't worry, Millennials. This is going to be epic.

The study appears in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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