Competition in the workplace can be healthy. A constructively competitive structure can boost creativity and team spirit. We can directly relate an office team to a sports squad:
In to a sports team, every player tries their best to get chosen to play, but ultimately the shared goal is the shared result. Teams work together to win, no matter who is picked to be on the field. This competitive environment encourages personal growth without becoming detrimental to the team output.
As each team member has their own KPIs, there is individual accountability and healthy pressure to perform at an expected standard. As other team members begin to outperform targets, the team's overall expectations rise to meet such results.
There's a sense of 'not wanting to be left behind'. If the majority of a particular team are all generating ideas, the quieter members will feel pressured to contribute more.
Unhealthy Competition Examples.
However, competition can often become unhealthy - perhaps even toxic. The harmony within a team can quickly be broken when team members turn their backs on the community, focusing more-so on themselves. To explain such potential issues further, we’ve summarised some common pain points:
Losing sight of the core reason for success can be an issue. A team should want to achieve the best for the business, not purely for themselves. When people focus too much on individual output, problems relating to inflated egos can appear.
Egotistical workers may assume superiority, often not wanting to work with others they deem less capable. The lack of teamwork can be damaging to a project, and the shifted focus to appearing clever (or the best) may derail the common goals.
After all, teamwork should be about building each other up, supporting ideas (and idea generation), and encouraging collective improvement.
Don’t just aim to be the best. Aim for your team to be the best.
If you’re thinking of your coworkers as rivals, that’s problematic.
Following this train of thought, unhealthy competition generally sabotages or prevents ‘rival’ success. Individuals may start keeping useful information to themselves, perhaps out of selfishness; It may be that they want to appear smarter, or stop others from producing better results than them.
Stopping others from growing to their full potential will ultimately slow down your team. The long term advantage of sharing information will benefit the entire team… more success for everyone reaps shared opportunities—and rewards.
Whilst we advocate strong teamwork and building intelligent alliances to strengthen output, it is worth noting that not all alliances are positive. A clique, for example, is a negative alliance due to the inaccessible nature of them. Sometimes departments, or projects, may view the environment as a 'us versus them' situation. It can lead to the same highlighted issues collectively… I.e., one department actively not helping other departments.
Game Theory: The prisoner’s dilemma
Game Theory is a popularised psychology experiment, famously illustrated as ‘The Prisoners’ Dilemma’:
In this scenario, two prisoners were separated for interrogation. Each prisoner was given a choice: If they confessed to the crime they’d get a reduced sentence, but this would be selling out their partner. If both prisoners stayed quiet then they’d potentially go free, but if one prisoner sold out the other then the prisoner that stayed quiet would get a larger sentence for lying.
The scenario focuses on the mutually beneficial outcomes. It suggests that the best option would be for both prisoners to confess, as that guarantees the lowest possible combined sentence for them both.
To explain it more succinctly, we’ve demonstrated a business application:
We can apply this example to team members inside an organisation. Imagine the variable is whether they share great software to fast-track results. Employee A knows of a great CMS that supercharges their work to achieve more at speed, whereas Employee B has an intelligent copywriting tool that automatically checks and corrects their work to ensure it's always high quality.
On their own, both Employee A and B are able to give good output (x1 quality) due to their methodology and tools.
However, if they both shared their secret weapons, they'd mutually benefit and impress superiors with x3 quality output each.
If one of them was to share their secret, whilst the other hoarded their information, the team member with both pieces of software would look noticably more effective. The comparison would feel like their work is x4 the quality of the other as suddenly they'd either both be working at speed, or both at high quality, but with only one of them able to guarantee both.
The 'prisoners dilemma' here, would be that if one employee could gain both pieces of information without sharing, then they'd be much more likely to get kudos and potentially a promotion or raise. The safest option would be not to give away any of your productivity hacks as your output would not seem as impressive if your techniques become the norm... However, by collaborating the overall team output is greatly heightened.
A greater team success will lead to greater shared opportunities for all.
How to stop unhealthy competition.
Managers are there to enable their team(s). Firstly, it’s important to be aware of general working practises and strive for transparency in the office, this will help everyone spot potential pain problems.
By initiating and encouraging teamwork, whether tasks or team building activities, the culture of working together will strengthen. Even simple language choices can reinforce that the team is a ‘we’ instead of a group of ‘I’s.
The goal should be to celebrate success as a team, and encourage individuals to strive for collective success.
How to promote healthy competition.
Key questions to promote healthy competition include:
“What can our team do better?”
“How do we work together to reach that goal?”
These questions prompt groupthink, and collective achievement. When it comes to working as a team, encourage each other to measure success as a whole. Additionally, having strong emotional intelligence skills is ideal to aid productivity and harmony in group scenarios.
Focus on the journey, not the destination.
Long term success is gained through planning. Instead of simply aiming to mirror someone else’s output, or what you may want to achieve as an end-result, plan the route there and commit to giving full focus to your path.
Performing a continuous self-audit allows you to assess your ongoing work, learning, approaches, mindsets, and will help empower you to competitively achieve your goals as an individual or as part of a team.
Revel in the success of others.
It is better to be inspired by strong competition, to try and match or surpass greatness, than to attempt to squash or belittle rival achievements. Positivity is an incredibly infectious benefit for any team, and sharing success breeds great winning culture.
Conversely, when it comes to failures, adopt a humble approach and accept learning from scenarios when yourself or others fall short.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
We may have suggested gaining inspiration from the great achievements of your peers, but it’s important to be realistic about this. Set your own clear goals, and be aware that your path to success need not mirror anyone else's.
Learn from others, but don’t try to become them. Instead, aim to be a better version of yourself through shared knowledge and experiences.
Think of your greatest competition as yourself. Aiming for self betterment is a healthier approach than going head to head with peers.
Knowing when to ask for support, or indeed when to offer it, is advantageous in any team. Healthy competition can exist in parallel to supporting each other with tasks and KPIs.
As a final thought, we shall return to the idea of thinking of an office team like a sports squad, as this analogy offers up some interesting considerations.
Many businesses claim to think of their team as a 'family', which denotes feelings of warmth, love, and respect. The problem with 'family' teams, is that the competitive aspect of productivity can be lost. With a 'squad' mentality, everyone has healthy pressure to consistently perform at their best, or risk being cut from the squad; after all, you're a team of professionals... not a family whereby you'll be included and embraced by the team no matter how little you do or how many mistakes you make.