Should trying hard always be rewarded?

If you’ve ever coached a kids’ sports team, you’ve probably encountered the wide range of opinions parents have about the purpose of the game. For some it’s about winning, that’s why one team plays another and it’s not simply a skills practice session. For other parents it’s about participation and trying your best. When it comes to making substitutions during the game, or assigning player positions, the coach can end up in a no-win situation. Competitive parents want the ‘best’ players to play the full game in the position they excel at. Participation parents want equal game time for everyone over the season and regular position rotation, so everyone gets to develop a wide range of skills. Player-of-the-day criteria are another point of difference.

Should trying hard always be rewarded?

Teams need a clear purpose

As a coach, it’s important to begin the season by asking parents and players what they see as the team’s priorities. Is it about winning, or at least being as competitive as possible? Or is it about equal time in the game for all and rotating positions to broaden experience? The chosen priorities then need to be shared and emphasised with all parents, as well as the young players.

Rewards reinforce purpose

What different parents choose to applaud most enthusiastically from the side-line reveals their belief in the game’s purpose. Competitive parents can struggle with applause being given for the slightest contribution from those who, in their eyes, are clearly letting the team down.  Here’s how this goes:

After completely missing the ball several times, Oliver finally makes fleeting uncontrolled contact, but the ball goes out or straight to the opposition. Competitive parents roll their eyes and stifle their groans. But Oliver’s parents erupt into applause and loud effusive praise. They want to celebrate the effort made, even though it produced nothing or clearly made things worse for the team.

In business, productivity is the purpose

In business, performance (or being as competitive as possible) tends to be the agreed priority. Without it you might as well call in the liquidators. While results are important, effort is also required because that drives the productivity that leads to results. However, effort by itself is not what matters. Celebrating effort in isolation from results can undermine employee engagement and dilute their focus on what matters most.

Why do some managers reward unproductive effort?

Managers who reward effort in isolation typically do so for one of the following reasons:

  • They don’t want to concede there are performance issues in their team
  • They know there’s a performance issue, but believe the person will improve on their own if they just keep trying hard
  • They think that addressing performance issues with someone who’s working so hard will not go down well with others and undermine team morale

The truth is, everyone in the team probably knows that this likeable, hardworking person is not performing. They’ll be waiting for the manager to do something about it. The longer the manager continues to reward effort alone, the more frustrated and disillusioned the team will become.

How can you stop unproductive effort being rewarded?

If your manager is frustrating your team with their tendency to reward empty effort, you could simply raise the issue in your next one-on-one.

If you’re a manager and you tend to reward unproductive effort, it might help to consider why that is and seek out the coaching you need to improve. Coaching might involve some training in performance review conversations, conflict resolution or coaching others. Chances are you’ll soon be rewarded by a lift in employee engagement and team performance. You may also experience a reduction in work-related stress and improved job satisfaction.

Check out an easy way to reward employees for effort and performance.