“We Didn’t Give Ourselves the Trophies” -- Millennials | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

“We Didn’t Give Ourselves the Trophies” — Millennials

If I had to vote for the most unfair cliché to describe the supposed problem other generations have with millennials, I’d say it’s the concept of young people being the “trophy generation.”

Although many of today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings did receive trophies and praise more than other generations, here is why I believe the stereotype is unfair:

As one millennial client recently pointed out to me, “We didn’t give the trophies to ourselves.”

He was so right. These participant trophies that are being used as the ultimate generation shamer were given to millennials when they were children — typically by so-called helicopter parents, coaches, and teachers. (And, we should always note, this phenomenon is largely centered on the middle and upper middle classes and certainly does not apply to all millennials of any background.)

So, isn’t it about time we stopped criticizing millennials for the behavior and practices of the adults who raised them?

First, let’s look at how we ended up here — and what’s good about it.

Managing Millennials Fact #1: They respond to acknowledgment.

Don’t members of all generations want to be acknowledged for a job well done? Isn’t it a motivator? Many millennials are embarrassed about the trophy stereotype, but at the same time, they desire more feedback than most Boomers or Xers. I consider this a huge positive — to have a generation of young people who want to be coached, mentored and guided because they want to get better all the time.

My belief is that older generations wanted a lot of feedback, too; we just didn’t think the world worked that way. Millennials grew up knowing this was possible, and therefore they know how valuable feedback can be.

Managing Millennials Fact #2: They want to contribute to a team.

Remember that millennials were often earning those trophies because they were competing as members of a sports team. In fact, many companies find that athletes make great employees because of their discipline, work ethic and that team ethos. That millennial employees continue to exhibit those same qualities on the job indicates their desire to make a difference to their companies and colleagues. In fact, nearly three-quarters of millennials say they want a job where they feel like their work matters, according to a LinkedIn survey. Isn’t that a good thing?

While I believe that millennials’ childhood experiences can be viewed in a positive light, of course, I also know that these so-called “trophy employees” can cause angst for managers — for instance when they expect too much praise or display undeserved confidence. Here are some strategies to handle challenges that might occur:

Managing Millennials Takeaway #1: Show some empathy.

Sure it’s fun to laugh along with Saturday Night Live about those millennials who expect to be promoted just for showing up, rather than for specific accomplishments.

But, again, remember that this was how the world was presented to many of them as children — that they were special and fantastic and should be rewarded no matter what — so that is inevitably their expectation on some level. At a certain point, millennials have to realize that there are no short cuts, but it’s also not crazy to see their disconnect. When authority figures have treated them one way their whole lives, it can take some time to realize that these new authority figures, AKA bosses, have a different agenda. As a manager, when you realize where a behavior comes from, it can help you handle it more effectively.

Managing Millennials Takeaway #2: Help them accept failure.

Sometimes we have to teach what seems obvious. In this case, as a manager you might need to teach a millennial how to handle not getting trophies.

A recent story in The New York Times discussed how colleges are literally teaching resilience and helping students learn to fail and build resilience. For example, there’s a new initiative at Smith College, called Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” Stanford, Cornell, Harvard — a veritable who’s who of top colleges — have all launched similar initiatives to help students address those bumps in the road that many previous generations often took for granted.

Managing Millennials Takeaway #3: Indulge the Desire for Trophies…a Little Bit

And finally, is there anything wrong with sometimes giving millennials the trophies they may want and expect? I believe that managers should reclaim this word and use it as use a carrot to get the results they want. Reframe the trophy as a reward for a great job and let your millennial go home early or invite him or her to an important client meeting or whatever accolade might resonate. I even consider a genuine “thank you” or “great job” to be a small trophy.

What are your thoughts on the “trophy generation” moniker? Please share on Twitter or in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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  1. I personally find merit in the idea of rewarding kids (and adults) for getting out there and trying, even if they don’t win a championship. It may be useful to frame it as a way of saying failure is ok, or that trying is the goal. I worked in an office where for a while we celebrated “Failure of the Week”, where we would share our “failures” and what was learned. It was fun, supportive and realistic. If you make mistakes, it means you are out there trying things!

  2. Good article. I have long advocated for the “fail fast, fail smart, fail well” mantra. I think what is missing here is that we have to make connections between failure, effort, and results. There is a difficult balance to be created between rewarding effort alone and recognizing that the best rewards go to those who deliver results. There are sometimes contexts and situations where effort alone is not enough, and failure on a large scale is different from failure on a small one. Sometimes the stakes are different, which requires different approaches to failure management. Like navigating the proverbial road paved with good intentions, finding the right balance among failure, effort, and results can be a hard lesson for many of us to learn– not just millennials.

    • @Mark – Thank you for the thoughtful insight. I appreciate your perspective. – Lindsey

  3. Mark Tully says:

    Thanks Lindsey for an excellent article. As a father of three millennials who are now in the workplace – and having a personal interest in this subject – I tire of the negative commentary. I wholeheartedly agree with your millennial facts and see these traits in the workplace. Regarding trophies, we need to re-frame the award concept in the workplace, recognizing success in appropriate ways. If past generations perhaps did not seek feedback, then likewise they are less included to offer it. I have spent part of my career in L&D and view ‘giving feedback’ as a weakness of the older generations so when millennials are hungry and open to it, this is where problems arise. (NB: website not yet live)

    • @Mark – Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your points and look forward to seeing your website when it is live. – Lindsey

  4. Connel says:

    Yesterday, my Gen X boss nominated me for a “Customer First” award for a job well done. That was my trophy. I acknowledged his kindness and provided my feedback on his contribution to the project. That was his trophy.

    Whether it’s a golden medallion that dangles from your neck or a pat on the back with a smile. It means the same to us. (I’d personally prefer the smile).
    Acknowledgement, a sense of belonging, and empathy is something all generations crave for.

    Thanks for a great article Lindsey. A great LinkedIn share for sure.

    • @Connel – Thank you for sharing this — what a great example of how meaningful and important acknowledgment is to all generations. And congratulations on your award! – Lindsey