Whether it be a simple thank you, a trophy, monetary compensation, or something else, we all appreciate being recognized for a job well done. Personally, a simple thank you or congratulations is more than ample for me. After all, the boost of serotonin that accompanies a sense of accomplishment feels really good. And for some of us, the feeling that we get when giving another a sense of pride feels even better. Unfortunately, this serotonin addiction that many of us have isn’t without a downside. Last weekend, I ran a 1/2 marathon and one of my friends who did the same diminished the finisher medal that she had around her neck, stating that she wasn’t a fan of the “trophy for everyone model.” ¬†Nevertheless, we walked into a restaurant for brunch and were welcomed by a hostess who admired the medals we were wearing and was so amazed by the accomplishment that it symbolized. “I could never run that far…what an amazing accomplishment.” Because each member in our party had run marathons, completed an Ironman, and/or endured a 50 miler, we had grown kind of numb to the very accomplishment that amazed our very kind hostess. We finished a race that many would never even start. As we talked about the experience and accomplishment over brunch, we all agreed that the medal around our neck was, in fact, an award worth having.

As a proud member of the United States Military, awards and formal recognition are a big part of our culture. You can tell (or at least assume) a great deal by the resume that adorns our chest. The indoctrinated might be able to ascertain where we served, the significance of our contributions, and how long we have served just by examining the ribbons and medals we wear. Unfortunately, many of the awards worn by heroes of yesteryear have been diminished in meaning over time. While we are critical of the “trophies for everyone” way we raised the generation that follows, many expect a case full of trophies for ourselves. In fact, it is the person without a trophy that is the exception.

In my current capacity, I proudly serve alongside members from each of our armed services. And each service has our own culture when it comes to awards. Unfortunately, sometimes the joint environment is one where the worst characteristics of each service collide. In my opinion, our award system is the most noteworthy example. It doesn’t take long for one to notice that just about everyone on the team who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan wears a Bronze Star. That’s right, the fourth-highest individual military award and the ninth-highest by order of precedence in the United States Military is worn by so many that for some it has become an award not worth having. We have diminished it by making it the equivalent of a thank you for (in)directly serving (or supporting from afar) during a period in which we are/were engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force. There are stories of Administrative Warriors, Public Affairs Officers, and others being recognized with the very award that once required significant justification and much scrutiny by the awarding authority.

It wasn’t that long ago when I was told that if I did not submit a specific individual for an end-of-tour award (for those not in the military, it’s intended to be a thank you for contributing above and beyond expectations) commensurate with his rank (seriously, we have a table that all but states, if rank equals x and individual was not fired, then submit for award y) that I would need to write a letter to justify why. I have had challenges with this individual wearing the right uniform, demonstrating any personal initiative, and refusing to return my calls, yet I need to put pen to paper to explain why he is not deserving of the default “trophy” that he is entitled to based on his rank and time served. Needless to say, I wrote that memo for the record.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a few trophies, medals, and ribbons about which I am not overly proud (e.g. don’t feel as though I really earned them). I have others that mean a great deal to me. That said, I have yet to receive a thank you note that did not mean the world to me. Because we are so eager to present awards we continue to diminish their meaning and therefore the contributions of those most deserving.

  • How abundant are letters of recommendation containing your signature?
  • ¬†How meaningful is the recognition you give?
  • How proud are you of the recognition you receive?

No matter their form (e.g. notes, handshakes, medals, gifts), let’s make the recognition we present meaningful. Let’s make them awards worth having…