February 25, 2019

Competition among employees in a company is a tricky thing. It uses incentives to manipulate everyone to outdo each other, thus driving the bottom line. Yet, there can only be one winner that takes home the hefty raise, and pitting a group of adept, hard-working employees against each other will ultimately hurt the culture. When managed improperly, competition can bring out the worst in us. Nonetheless, it remains an ineludible part of the workforce. So how can we foster the right type and amount of competition in the workplace, especially when different people respond differently to such cut-throat environments?

Some may thrive with tenacity and creativity, while others may resort to unscrupulous methods to rise above. Not getting what you want after putting in the hours beyond the call of duty can also lead to toxic resentment towards management—though, it wouldn’t be misplaced. Ineffective, self-seeking competition at work is the consequence of poor leadership.

It boils down to how an employee reacts to internal competition. Are they anxious or excited? Workers who are driven by fear are more likely to make bad decisions, that is, cheating or weakening their peers in the firm. Fear causes people to second-guess themselves and believe that everyone else is better than them. Thus, the only way to succeed is to kill the competition or engage in egregious misconduct.

If you don’t feel capable enough to outsmart your colleagues, it might be tempting to shred their documents and sabotage them during a major client meeting. For erstwhile journalist Stephen Glass, he resorted to fabricating stories to climb the corporate ladder, and in 3 years, went from being an editorial assistant to an associate editor of The New Republic. Both routes put the company at risk. Positive, productive feelings of excitement, however, motivates individuals to step up and work smarter.

Based on research done by the Harvard Business Review, such polarising emotions and behaviours are linked to the way incentives are framed. Are your employees vying to earn a fat bonus, or trying to avoid getting fired? Naturally, negative, fear-inducing motivators give rise to unsavoury actions, due to the desperation of loss. There’s a difference between losing something and not gaining anything. With the latter, you get to keep your job and remain in the status quo. As for the former, it’s like getting demoted. The pressure is cranked up.

Besides reframing competition, it’s imperative to create a culture that’s organisation-first. Competitivity becomes toxic when it is selfish. Hence, a company has to condemn arrogance, backstabbing and anything that destroys team coherence. Instead of humiliating underperforming staff members, leaders should focus on how they can improve and encourage mutual support between employees. The real competition is not within the company. Companies can also rejig their incentive programme to include rewards for being good team players.

To add an element of fun, gamify the process. Picture a leader board with points allocated to each department. When falling behind equates to demerits rather than the loss of income, it liberates employees to compete without suffering real-life consequences. Not to mention, it fosters a sense of community and bonding. You’re not fighting as an individual, but playing as a group. To that end, prizes can be distributed based on how well each department fares as a whole. In such an arrangement, collaboration and cooperation would be essential. While the office is having fun, building relationships and hustling hard, the organisation benefits from increased productivity—a win-win situation that ensures employees remain enthusiastic and motivated. And it doesn’t hurt to boost your employer branding with such a dynamic, playful culture.

Without proper leadership that promotes teamwork and positive incentives, a company is bound to fall prey to unhealthy internal competition, built upon a foundation of fear, which can eventually crumble from the inside out.