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Participation trophies don’t help

“DECA is preparing emerging leaders and entrepreneurs to be college and career ready.”

That is what you see when you visit DECA’s website, deca.org. DECA is an association for marketing and business students that is focused on developing business and leadership skills in its members through activities like conferences and competitions.

Almost a month ago, I volunteered to be a judge for the Michigan DECA state competition, college level. The virtual event had judges and students participating from across the state. All judges were invited to attend a pre-event meeting the morning of the event for instructions and to ask questions.

Judging was on a 100-point scale. The host of the meeting told us that no student should receive lower than 50 points and no student should receive 100 points. I was instantly put on edge by that news and waited for an explanation before I asked for one. I did not have to wait long.

The explanation? Students were not to receive lower than 50 out of 100 because we did not want to hurt their self-esteem. They were not to receive 100 points because everyone has room for improvement. I was not OK with that and made up my mind that I had to give scores that I thought would be most accurate and, therefore, most valuable to the competitor’s experience.

Since that happened, I have shared the experience with others.

Some people said I should have judged as if the score was 50-99. The problem is, that only works if the students are informed of it. If they are not informed about it, they will see the scores differently than intended. They would see a 50 as 50%, when a score of 50 would be like receiving a zero. That is a big difference.

Others said to give 50 points for a competitor just for showing up. If you show up to work but do not do a single thing, do you deserve to get half of your pay? No. You deserve to get fired. If that were the case, the students would need to be informed that showing up would get them an automatic 50 points. Otherwise, again, they would not fully comprehend the score they received.

Other people compared it to grades and said a 50-and-below is a failing score, anyway, so it does not really matter. That was not a grade. The scale was 0-100, not equated to a letter grade. Someone who earned 20 points did better than someone who received five. In the classroom, they both might have failed that assignment, but, in this case, and in many other cases in the world outside of academia, one student provided more value than the other.

The “everyone receives a trophy” society is getting worse.

To me, the most disturbing thing about my experience is what DECA claims to stand for. Preparing emerging leaders? Giving students business skills?

Translate my experience to the world outside of college. Does that teach them anything of value? Thinking you cannot give the real score earned because it might damage their self-esteem is a problem. Toss accountability right out the window. Businesses need people who can perform and add value, not people who never learned how to grow from difficult experiences.

And to never allow someone to get a 100%? I am all for continuous improvement, but, when someone has earned the top score, let’s let them have it. Leaving people feeling they never do good enough simply because we refuse to let them get the highest score — even when they earned it — is cruel.

How about we just try being completely honest instead of tiptoeing around? Stop motivating people to be less than they are capable of because we fear hurting them. Raise and support our youth in ways that make them resilient, determined, and confident.

I debated whether to use the name of the organization in this column. I realized the reason I was debating was because I didn’t want to hurt anyone I knew who was involved in our local DECA chapter at the high school. Yikes. That would make me part of the problem!

Instead, I will share that, in my interactions with the local high school program and their advisor, I have respect for them and appreciate the experiences they give their members.

I crafted and sent an email to the man from the pre-event judges meeting a few days after the event. Not surprised, I have received zero response. Perhaps it is because my email hurt his feelings.

Jackie Krawczak is president of Jackie Krawczak LLC. Her column runs every three weeks on Thursdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.

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