Reaping the rewards of workplace competition

Leaders need to learn how to harness competition to increase morale, boost performance and foster productivity

Reaping the rewards of workplace competition

Leaders need to learn how to harness competition to increase moral, boost performance and foster productivity

“LIFE’S NOT a competition,” our parents may have told us, along with their stories about Santa and the Easter Bunny.

However, in business and the workplace, competition is both inevitable and indeed valuable.

Some industries and roles, such as sales, are more conducive to workplace competition than others, like IT.

However, while competition on the sports field or during a board game is lauded, competitiveness 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? Workplace competition can push us to excel, take chances and better ourselves.

But there is a fi ne line between these positives and 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 themselves.

Competition can be a useful self-analysis tool that may result in changing work habits to become more organised, setting personal goals and stretching targets, which can motivate you to add further skills or qualifications in order to deliver higher-quality work. Competition also drives creativity and can improve the quality of work produced.

It develops the same skills and attributes that are needed for innovation.

While workplace competition can drain morale, it can also boost morale and increase 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 improve personal morale.

Workplace competition can push you outside of your 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 quite happy to stay in his current role, in which he was comfortable.

Unfortunately, he didn’t realise that the performance management system valued those who went outside of their comfort zone and strived to improve, and that he was competing for his role every day, as the bottom 10% of employees in the performance reviews were made redundant. Performing at the same (albeit competent) standard was actually regarded at this company as going backwards.

This employee needed to push himself, and boost his performance and productivity.

Workplace competition is ubiquitous and ever-present, so become comfortable with it, embrace it and make peace with the fact that it exists.

Competition, especially collaborative competition, can widen your network.

This might be achieved by forming relationships, connections or alliances with people in other areas of the company, or even outside the company; or by seeking out a mentor to inspire and guide you, or a sponsor to support you and your ideas.

A sponsor can help you gain exposure or help facilitate stretch assignments that test or showcase your abilities. Competition is 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 you think about who a role model could be 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 be good for the business too.

It can create an environment in which employees push each other to exceed the norm, resulting in increased production.

Higher productivity at an individual level results in higher productivity at the team level, and so on, right through to the overall business level.

Workplace competition can also engender a sense of teamwork, community and accomplishment. This can translate to a better customer experience and a greater sense of community, benefiting the business as a whole.

How to promote healthy competition

1. Elicit excitement

In a Harvard Business Review study, 204 employees from a variety of industries were asked how their company policies made them feel (eg bonuses, performance management, promotions).

They were also asked to think about the behaviours that distinguished them from their colleagues. These behaviours were creative, such as searching out new processes and ways of doing things, or coming up with new or improved product ideas, and some were unethical, such as taking credit for a colleague’s work or agreeing to help a colleague 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 employees tended to go into sabotage mode or use unethical techniques.

2. 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 to 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 working against each other.

3. Understand that people are different

Everyone is different, and not everyone responds to competition in the same way.

Research cited in Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggests that 25% of people are unaffected by competition, 25% fear competition, and 50% benefi t from competition.

Women tend to be more conservative about 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 must match the competitive landscape to the styles and preferences of individual employees.

4. 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.

5. Have fun

The time spent at work takes up a huge proportion of our week.

It can seem even longer if there is stress and fear.

Try creating some fun workplace competitions, such as competing to bake the best birthday cake, or having a darts competition at Friday night drinks.

A little fun competition enhances relationships and collaboration, which can transfer back to the day-to-day workplace.


Stephen Barnes is the principal of management consultancy Byronvale Advisors. He has over 20 years’ experience in advising clients, from new business start-ups to publicly listed companies across a wide array of industries. He is also the author of Run Your Business Better.