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7 Things You Should Know About Competition in the Workplace

Gal Rimon
Gal Rimon
Nov 10, 2016

When Does Friendly Competition Drive Employee Motivation and When Does it Kill It?

When does competition work in the workplace and when does it harm productivity? 7 points you should know.

What is competitiveness in the workplace?

Competition is many things to people, some people would argue that competition is the driver behind people’s willingness to excel at what they do. In their case, they would argue for a competitive workplace, where everyone competes with everyone else, something like the sales environment in Glengarry Glen Ross. When thinking about gamification at work, they would want a huge leaderboard as the prime way to motivate people. In their minds, everyone will want to be at the top of the leaderboard, and that alone will motivate people. They want to create this never-ending competition between employees.

Where does competition work?

In “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman argue that when people are insecure and have self-doubt a competition can be the real ingredient to drive creative achievement and innovation.

Think about a contest to innovate on a certain product or service, or about two companies competing between them to make the best application, website or consumer device. However, if you read well between the lines you’ll notice that competition here works in the context of innovation and creativity. It doesn’t necessarily apply to modern work in an office environment. Maybe the real reason is that “feeling challenged” makes people perform better, but feeling threatened by competition has the opposite effect.

What can statistics tell us?

The authors of “Top Dog” quote research that says that 25 percent of people wilt under competition (they become disengaged), 25 percent of people aren’t impacted by it, and 50 percent of people benefit from it. The book mentions that there is a gender gap, too. Men are overconfident in their abilities and tend to embrace competition. Women are more risk averse and avoid it.

That’s why the competitive landscape should be adjusted in accordance with  the people affected: team competitions can motivate some, but for others, the best way can be engaging in a dialogue about performance that doesn’t “name” people but that encourages them to compete against the team average or an internal goal.

When can competition turn sour?

Yet, the truth is that there are several dangers with using leaderboards and competition as a sole motivator and ignoring them may be risky. 

  • Leaderboards and outright competition may be discouraging, especially for new or less-trained employees – they will feel that they did not receive a fair opportunity.
  • Competition may present an unreasonable expectation – imagine you’re in a class of 20 students. Aspiring to have good grades can be reasonable. But imagine you work in a sales center with 100 sales people – can get to the top ten seem discouraging? What about a call center with 1,000 employees? Are employers willing to risk this disengagement?

But the real answer to the question comes from behavioral psychology. Research tells us that people are less motivated by extrinsic factors (competition, cash rewards) and more motivated by intrinsic factors. Additionally, extrinsic factors may create a sudden spike in performance, but intrinsic factors are more likely to generate a long-term behavioral change.

In “Drive – The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” author Daniel Pink shares research that shows that extrinsic motivation, such as competition and cash rewards doesn’t last. Only intrinsic motivation – the drive to do well, the urge for a “job well done” is what really drives performance.

Recent research by Dan Ariely and others shows that even small rewards for competition – like a pizza for the best performer – can actually hurt performance in the long run. This research shows that competing for a prize can create a tiny spike in performance in the first week, but that it will drop or even get worse the week after. In that case, the competition backfires within a relatively short time.

When is competition at its worst?

Competition and any dialogue about improving employee performance need to happen in an atmosphere of trust. Having competition creates a sense of fear will derail your workplace – introducing a need to hurt each other instead of foster collaboration and joint problem solving.

Use competition judiciously. Make sure that the right things are targeted, not an unnecessary competition about non-important tasks that will poison the atmosphere, especially when you think about millennials in the workplace – they’re here for the culture and meaning, not the competition.

Who do people compete with?

Having said all of the above caveats about the risks of competition, there still is much to be gained from it. People are driven by social proof, a phenomenon where people try to behave as others do, showing they are aware of the correct way to behave. That’s why people should be shown how others behave – it makes them better. This is how the ice bucket challenge works; this is why people want badges for helping others do well. This isn’t outright competition, but it certainly is a case where people are influenced by others.

People compete best when the competition is close – people that are like them. Think of the fact that top performers really shouldn’t be competition with the bottom or even average performers in the company. Each group should compete against itself: people will have a more realistic chance of winning, they will feel that the race is hot and that there is a real chance of winning. First and foremost, they will sense the competition is “fair”. Competing for the first place among 100 employees, when you’re new or aren’t the person to enjoy it is downright discouraging.

What type of competition can work?

The real answer to the extrinsic vs intrinsic competition issue is that people can be driven to “intrinsically” compete – with themselves. One way is by setting goals for themselves, or by comparing their performance to “benchmarked” performance of someone at their level.

This is what gamification at work does for people. We all know a form of competing against yourself: it is called a fitness tracker. It is known that if you count steps you’re going to walk more. So if you get real-time feedback about your job performance, you are going to do better. The same drive can be leveraged by having managers set goals that employees can track in real time, relative to themselves, channeling that intrinsic drive.  This is where managers can be trained – to set realistic and personal goals employees can engage with without feeling disengaged.


Photo credit: Your image/Shutterstock

Image Credit:

Alan Poulson Photography/Shutterstock

Gal Rimon
Gal Rimon
Gal Rimon is Founder and CEO at GamEffective, a leading workforce performance gamification company. GamEffective helps companies engage employees for better motivation and learning. GamEffective is a Gartner 2016 Cool Vendor in Human Resource Management.