Embracing Competition in the Workplace

Ben Olds Audacious Ideas, Ben Olds, Driving Productivity, Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, Good HR, Guest: Ben Olds, HR, HR & Sports

The other day, I was listening to a friend discuss what a competitive equestrian she was growing up.

As I am wont to do when fake-listening to someone wax stories of yesteryear, I started daydreaming. I couldn’t help but think: Why do people compete at riding horses? Equestrian is an artform, isn’t it? Who was the first narcissist who sat watching someone demonstrate grace and elegance while horseback riding and said “I bet I can do that even more graceful and elegantly!”? How did we turn something like this into a competition?

That led me to thinking of other absurd competitions we have as humans: ballroom dancing, synchronized swimming, turtle racing (yeah, it’s a thing), speed-eating, competitive fishing, and my personal favorite for absurd ways in which we compete: cheerleading—literally a sport invented as a means to support another sport, until some hyper-competitive student yelled, “Hey, I can support that other sport better than you can support that other sport!” Why do we do these things?

It’s simple: Humans love to compete. It’s in our nature. We are competitive beings just as much as we are pack-animals. The human desire to feel connected in relationships is matched by the human desire to feel status over others in those relationships. From the most insecure to the most confident, the most humble to the most arrogant, and the most driven to the most laid back, the desire for status and achievement is inherent in all of us to some degree.

And yet, 21st century management theory tends to frown on competition. Why? Two reasons include there being a fear that competition will cut down on collaboration, and also that competition makes the losers feel like losers. These are valid concerns in some endeavors. For instance, you wouldn’t want to introduce a competition like “who can get the highest 360-feedback scores” else you’re likely to incentivize suboptimal behavior (e.g., pressuring responders into giving higher scores, artificially tanking the scores of your colleagues, etc.). Likewise, you wouldn’t want a competition on which a team can meet its strategic objectives the quickest, else you’re likely to stifle inter-team collaboration and cooperation, as well as leave folks who achieved their objectives a little later feeling less satisfied. I get that. But not all competition compromises success. Sometimes competition can bring out the best in people. It is, after all, a basic human instinct.

What conditions have to exist to identify situations in which competition might be healthy?

– First, you need situations that don’t require collaboration across competing groups. People are less likely to help one another if helping isn’t aligned with their ability to “win.”

Second, you want to avoid situations where the “losers” of the competition would be demoralized. That could cut down on risk-taking and lead to everyone “playing it safe” and not stretching. Instead, look for situations where winning can be celebrated while losing isn’t devastating.

– Third, you want situations that have clearly measurable outcomes. If you can’t measure it objectively, it’s tough to ensure integrity in the outcome.

– Fourth, you need the competitors to be able to clearly and directly impact the outcome. If too much is left to chance, it’s unlikely a good candidate for a productive competition.

– Finally, you want something that people believe matters—something worth fighting for.

If you can meet these criteria, then you should consider whether introducing some competition would bring out the natural human urges to try a bit harder.

Some examples just in the HR space that meet these criteria are listed below. Why not have a competition that measures:

  • The company division with the highest participation rate on the annual engagement survey?
  • The first team to complete 100% of its performance-management reviews?
  • The group with the highest participation in corporate wellness initiatives?
  • The team with the best workplace safety record?
  • The leadership group with the highest attendance rate at community building events?
  • The team with the fewest vacation days left on the books at the end of the year?
  • The department with the highest number of aggregate community service hours?

Competition, in and of itself, isn’t bad. It’s a basic human instinct. It only becomes something to avoid when it cuts down on necessary collaboration, or when it leaves losers feeling demoralized. But as shown above, there are plenty of objectives that could benefit from a little safe competition.

What are some others? Where have you used competition effectively in the workplace? Hit me in the comments.

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!