In the ideal workplace, highly motivated employees are everywhere – excelling, working well with peers, and striving to stand out through superior job performance.
To stimulate individual effort, some companies create a cutthroat culture that measures employees against each other, while others opt for a collaborative culture that prioritizes cooperation and consensus-building. Some businesses use different strategies with various employees; for example, they’ll encourage competitiveness in their sales team and collaboration in manufacturing.
Which is the right approach? As with many things related to running a business, it depends. We’ll explore competition in the workplace so you can motivate employees without turning your office culture toxic.
Some people feel that competition drives excellence, while others feel that gamification is the future of the workplace and can improve employee engagement and motivation. In reality, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for motivating employees.
Keep the following seven ideas in mind when evaluating competition in your workplace.
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, injecting some competition can drive creative achievement and innovation.
For example, a contest can spur employees to innovate on a specific product or service, or two companies can compete to create the better application, website or consumer device.
In these instances, competition works in the context of innovation and creativity. In a modern office environment, people may perform better if they feel challenged, but feeling threatened could have the opposite effect. Understand the difference, and consider competition as a way to spur innovation and creativity and boost productivity.
Some people wilt and become disengaged in a competitive environment, while others may be motivated and inspired.
Consider adjusting the competitive landscape in your workplace according to your team members’ personalities. Team competitions may motivate some. However, for others, the best motivation methods won’t directly compare individual performances; instead, you can encourage team members to compete against the team average or an internal goal.
Several dangers are associated with using leaderboards and competition as your only means of employee motivation. Ignoring these dangers can create a toxic work environment, low employee morale, decreased productivity and high turnover.
Here are a few downsides to extreme competition in the workplace:
Research shows 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.
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 it will drop or even worsen the week after. In this case, competition benefits backfire within a relatively short time.
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink shares research that shows extrinsic motivation – such as competition and cash rewards – doesn’t last. However, intrinsic motivation – including the drive to do well, the urge for a “job well done” and a sense of fulfillment – genuinely drives performance.
Competition and any dialogue about measuring employee performance must happen in an atmosphere of trust. Competition creates a sense of fear that can derail your workplace – introducing a need for employees to hurt each other instead of fostering collaboration and joint problem-solving.
Use competition judiciously. Ensure you’re targeting appropriate goals, and avoid unnecessary competition about trivial tasks that will poison the atmosphere. This is especially important if you have millennials and Gen Z employees in the workplace, as these generations are more focused on culture and meaning, not competition.
People compete best when the competition is close – when they’re competing against people like them. Top performers shouldn’t compete with average or low performers in the company.
When appropriate groups compete against each other, people will be motivated because they have a more realistic chance of winning. They’ll feel the competition is fair. In contrast, competing for first place among 100 employees when you’re new or have no hope of winning is discouraging.
People are often driven to compete with themselves. They find motivation in setting personal achievement goals or comparing their performance to the benchmarked performance of someone at their level.
A fitness tracker is an example of competing with yourself. As the device counts your steps, you strive to reach fitness and activity goals, competing against yourself and upping the challenge when necessary.
Here are some ways to create an environment where employees compete against themselves:
Keep the following best practices in mind when monitoring competition in your workplace.
Gal Rimon contributed to the writing and reporting in this article.