by Bruce Tulgan | September 23, 2016
You might think a generation raised on mantras like "we're all winners" and "everyone gets a trophy" wouldn't be particularly competitive. But that is not the case. While the self-esteem movement was chipping away at Millennials' competitiveness, the testing movement was building it back up. Still, testing breeds a different kind of competitiveness: competition against standards and benchmarks, against averages and means, and against one's own past performance.

Think about a video game that a Millennial might practice and practice, beating one high score after another, set by himself. He wins every time, and nobody has a reason to feel bad. That's the kind of competition Millennials are looking for: They want to compete against themselves in a safe environment where they can try over and over again to improve on their own performance benchmarks. When it comes to competitiveness at work, this is what one Millennial had to say: "I'll do whatever they want me to do. Just tell me someone is keeping track of all this stuff I'm doing. Tell me I'm getting credit for it, that I've been racking up points here like mad. Tell me someone is keeping score."

When Millennials know you are keeping track of their day-to-day performance, their measuring instinct is sparked and their competitive spirit ignited. Keeping close track of their work tells them that they are important and their work is important. The process motivates them to perform because they want to get credit, score points, earn more of whatever there is to earn.

"I was managing this very young team of programmers," a senior manager in one of our nation's intelligence agencies told me. "For the first few months, our weekly team meetings were great, but after every meeting, the programmers would come up to me one by one asking for feedback on their individual work. I kept trying to address this in the team meetings by asking each of them for status reports in our meetings. But one by one, they would come see me after the meeting to ask for individual feedback. Finally, in one of the team meetings, I asked the group about it point-blank. They all said, 'We all want to know how we are doing, individually.' So I said to them joking, 'Do you want me to give out gold stars when you do a good job?' And they all nodded affirmatively. They were very cheerful about it, but I was having a hard time with it. But I started giving out gold stars to them, individually, in the team meetings, and they loved it. They started asking all the time, 'Do I get a gold star for that?'"

I've heard stories like this over and over again from managers of Millennials in a whole range of industries. Yes, they want to earn gold stars. Just remember that if you are going to give out gold stars or points of any kind, you have to make it very clear every step of the way exactly how those points can be earned -- or lost. You need a system.

This excerpt comes from Bruce Tulgan's book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy  (2009). Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the bestselling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), and It's Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by email at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website