Getting a competitive edge with workplace competition

| December 19, 2018

‘Life’s not a competition’ – a saying our parents might have said to us along with telling us about Santa and the Easter Bunny, however, in business, and in the workplace in particular, competition is both inevitable and indeed valuable.

Some industries and roles such as sales are more conducive to workplace competition than others such as IT.  However, while competition on the sports field or a board game is lauded, often competition within the workplace is often thought of as a negative attribute.  So, how can healthy competition benefit individual workers and the business, and how do you go about creating the right type and amount of competition?

For an employee workplace competition can push us to excel, take chances and to better ourselves. There is a fine line though to the dark side of workplace competition that can exacerbate stress and drain morale. The key is to compete on your own terms – maximise your strengths and take opportunities when they present. Competition can be a useful self-analysis tool which might result in actions like changing work habits to become more organised, setting personal goals and stretch targets, motivate to add further skills or qualifications, or just simply motivate you to work to deliver higher quality work.  Competition also drives creativity and can improve the quality of work produced. These skills and attributes are also the same skills needed for innovation.

While workplace competition can drain morale, it can also increase morale, boost your performance and productivity.  If your goal is to outpace a colleague, you are more likely to get more done than if there wasn’t a competitive element.  ‘Winning’ can be self-validating and increase personal morale.

Workplace competition can push you outside you comfort zone and zap complacency.  Many years ago, I worked for a large corporate that performance ranked employees.  I had a team member who was great at his job, dedicated and also quite happy staying in his current role where he was comfortable.  Unfortunately, he didn’t realise that the performance management system valued those that went out of their comfort zone, strove to improve and that he was competing for his role every day as the bottom 10% of employees in the performance reviews were exited.  Performing at the same (albeit competent) standard was actually regarded at this company as going backwards.  This employee needed to push himself, boost his performance and productivity.  Workplace competition is ubiquitous – ever present so become comfortable with it, embrace it and make peace with the fact that it exists.

Competition, and especially collaborative competition can widen your network.  This might be by forming relationships, contacts or alliances with people in other areas of the company, or even outside the company.  It might also be through seeking out a mentor to inspire and guide you, or a sponsor for an idea or for just you.  The sponsor will help you gain exposure or help facilitate stretch assignments that test or showcase your abilities.

Competition not a zero-sum game.  You might need to rethink workplace competition – it’s not necessarily that one person wins, and one person fails.  Workplace competition can make you assess how you measure up to your competitor.  It can make to think about who could be a role model and how to emulate their skills or success.  You can also learn from your competitors so instead of feeling threatened think about what they are doing differently to you and how you could follow their lead.

Workplace competition can also be good for the business too.  It may create an environment where employees push each other to exceed the normal which can result in increased production.  Increased production at an individual level results in increased production at the team level, and right through tot the overall business level. Workplace competition can also engender a sense of teamwork, community and accomplishment.  This might translate into an overall better customer experience or a greater sense of community and an overall benefit for the business.

Have you heard the saying ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person’?  Competition can increase efficiency.  In an effort to be more productive, employees find ways to be more efficient in their processes which can lead to efficiency increase within the firm.  It can also lead to innovation in the effort to find better, more effective and more efficient ways of doing tasks.

So how do you promote healthy competition in a workplace?

  • Elicit excitement

In a Harvard Business Review study, 204 employees from a variety of industries were asked how different employment policies at their company made them feel (e.g. bonuses, performance management, promotions).  They were also asked to think about their behaviours that they used to distinguish themselves from their colleagues.  These behaviours were creative such as searching out new processes and ways of doing things or new or improved product ideas, and unethical such as taking credit for a colleague’s work or agreeing to help some colleagues but planning not to follow through.  The results of the study showed that when employment policies elicited excitement employees were more likely to use creativity.  Conversely when employment policies made employees feel anxious, or there was a culture of fear, the employee went into sabotage mode or used unethical techniques.

  • Strive for ‘cooperative competition’

Rooted in Game Theory cooperative competition suggests that by working together team members will push each other to be more productive and produce stronger work.  Working together and helping one another releases chemicals in the brain that enhance motivation, pleasure, and bonding.  The distinction here is that competition is created so that people work together for a common purpose rather than pitted against each other.  Evan Rosen, author of ‘The Culture of Collaboration’ says “Perhaps the most significant way that internal competition derails collaboration involves trust.  How can we trust one another if we’re competing in a dog-eat-dog culture?  Instead of trust, fear prevails.”  Think of a footy team that works together as a team rather than as a bunch of individuals trying to compete with their teammates.   My rugby team, the Highlanders, a couple of years ago only had two All Blacks in the team, but they won the Super Rugby Championship. They competed as a team and not as individuals.

  • Understand people are different

Everyone is different and not everyone responds to competition the same. Research cited in Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losingsuggested that 25% of people are unaffected by competition, 25% fear competition, and 50% benefit from competition.  Add in gender and women tend to be more conservative of their chances of succeeding in a competitive environment and tend to avoid competition. Men tend to be overconfident in their abilities and less fearful of the risks inherent in competition. Good leaders match the competitive landscape to the style and preferences of the person.

  • Recognise that not all competition is productive.

Leaders should use competition judiciously understanding the significance of instigating competition and the subsequent ramifications.  Be prepared to shut down competition if it is causing damage.

  • Have fun

Let’s face it the time spent at work a huge proportion of our week. It can seem even longer if there is stress and fear.  Try creating some fun workplace competition.  This might be as something like a competition to bake a birthday cake for a team member and then trying to outdo the previous cake, or a darts competition at Friday night drinks.  A little fun competition enhances relationships and collaboration which can transfer back through to the day-to-day workplace.

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Stephen Barnes

Stephen Barnes is the principal of management consultancy Byronvale Advisors and the author of ‘Run Your Business Better’. He has spent over 20 years advising clients from start-ups to publicly listed companies and prides himself on understanding their issues and producing pragmatic solutions.