Should Everyone Get A Prize?
When you are planning a prize-giving event, this is a question that comes up very early in the process. The TLDR answer is: not always.
We Like Rewards to Be Fairly Earned
As a species we like rewards to be distributed fairly – our close relative, the monkey, feel the same (see video). When someone is seen as being cheated from their share, or receiving the benefits of someone else’s hard work, it makes us feel that an injustice has been done.
If the Oscars were given to everyone who made a film, no matter how bad the acting or direction was, then they would have no meaning. The impact of the Oscars would be less, because they would not represent excellence in any way. And we want to reward excellence to encourage more of it, and to foster the drive to compete and be better.
What About the Impact of Losing?
The psychological impact of losing can be strong – particularly if the award is important to the competitors. For Olympic athletes, it has been suggested that a Bronze medal has a greater positive impact on an athlete than Silver. The Bronze medallist won a medal and their peers mostly did not. The Silver medallist fell just short of winning Gold. That relative status matters in the psychology of awards. If we (as an individual or a team) lose regularly then our brain chemistry changes, making us less confident and (believe it or not) less likely to win in future.
In some cases you may want to reward everyone for their effort. A group of learners who have completed a course of study may get a plaque to show that they have stuck with it to the end, and recognises their effort. Every soccer player who plays an international game is given a “cap” for each game to recognise their participation at the highest level of the sport. These “badges of honour” are very useful ways of offsetting the negative impact of not winning, because the participant will always get one for being good enough to participate.
Reward What Is Important
So your award ceremony or process should recognise the excellence of the winners, but you will want to recognise other types of excellence too. More categories of awards that are relevant to your sport or sector will help you to do this. In sports this could be “best newcomer”, “personality of the year”, “best game ambassadors”, “person of the match”, “fastest individual time” or other areas like this. These all focus on aspects of the sport on or off the field, but can be recognised as important aspects of a sport. In business you will want to choose options relevant to your area: “best overall design”, “people’s choice”, “best new eco product”, “social responsibility award”, “innovation award”, etc.
More prize categories give competitors the chance to strive for different goals. Everyone will still want to win, but some might feel that innovation is more important, whilst others think that environmental protection is most important. Each can strive to win overall and be recognised for different achievements.
Use Humour to Build Your Team
Humour can be very effective, but it depends on the situation. Making a joke at someone else’s expense can backfire massively so it is best restricted to within the team where everyone understands and shares the joke. This helps to foster inclusion in the team and helps to ensure that everyone “gets a mention”. Probably not suitable for the Baseball World Series though!
Most Excellent, Dude!
Competition prizes are there to recognise excellence in some way: whether that be for effort, attitude or outcome. It is OK for some participants not to be recognised as excellent if they have not deserved it. If you are thinking of ways to increase the range of prizes you offer, make sure you are really clear on the rules in advance so that every participant or team knows what they are competing for.