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Office Rivals? Keeping Workplace Competition Friendly

image for Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock
  • While competition is an essential factor in enhancing innovations and performance in an organization, measures should be put in place to regulate it.
  • Every organization should work toward promoting healthy competition among its employees.
  • Constant competition and comparison can result in demotivated employees and sabotage competition.

Competition can be healthy because it encourages people to excel in their work, but sometimes, rivalries can get out of hand and cause turmoil in the office.

In an article for Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone noted that most people are uncomfortable with competitiveness.

"Because these feelings often feel unacceptable to us, we tend to ward them off or disguise them in ways that can be hurtful to ourselves and to others," Firestone said. "When we suppress these feelings, we leave them to fester and impact us in a variety of negative ways."

According to a 2014 study from Monster, the majority of U.S. workers say the competition they have with co-workers or bosses has hurt their job performance. Of those surveyed, 55% who said they had a workplace rivalry reported the rivalry created undue stress and reduced their productivity, and 20% said it led to negative impacts, including trouble with management.

Just 6% of those surveyed said competing with someone in the office inspires them to do their best work. Some rivalries get so bad that employees look for work elsewhere. Nearly 30% of those surveyed have considered leaving their jobs because of office rivals, the study found.

Because companies work hard to hire the best talent available, rivalries are bound to occur when similarly, skilled and motivated individuals work together, said Mary Ellen Slayter, a career advice expert for Monster. However, identifying what motivates employees and fostering healthier competition may help managers curb the negative feelings that may arise from people who get overly competitive.

"Balance is key," Slayter said. "Let workplace competition motivate you to perform your best, but don't get distracted by jealousy."

There are ways to encourage healthy competition among employees. Of those surveyed by Monster, employees named a few ways they deal with a workplace rival who causes them stress, including working hard and focusing on their goals, talking about the situation with their managers, and learning new skills to outshine the competition.

"Research tells us that people are less motivated by extrinsic factors [competition, cash rewards] and more motivated by intrinsic factors," said Gal Rimon, founder and CEO of GamEffective, a gamification company. "Additionally, extrinsic factors may create a sudden spike in performance, but intrinsic factors are more likely to generate a long-term behavioral change."

Rimon noted that this type of influence contributed to the success of 2014's viral ALS ice bucket challenge. "The challenge isn't an outright competition," he said, "but it certainly is a case where people are influenced by others."

To encourage healthy competition, Rimon suggested having employees set goals for themselves. People will compare their performance to a "benchmarked" performance of someone at their level. It's sort of like how fitness trackers may encourage people to move more.

"If you count steps, you're going to walk more," Rimon said. "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." 

If there are still negative feelings and a toxic atmosphere? Slayter advised employees to counter competitive tensions by finding common ground through sports, shared hobbies or just having a drink after hours.

"If you can't get the tension under control, find ways to distance yourself from your adversary," Slayter said. "Explore your options – from switching desks to switching companies – and remember that living, and working, well is the best revenge."

Motivated employees are a key asset to any business owner. Motivation involves challenges and enjoyment; it's about getting the rewards of your labor immediately. Turning work into a game makes it more enjoyable. Competition thus becomes an excellent way to inspire and engage employees.

Competition does not always have to be defined. Sometimes it will mean performing better than you did previously. How long did it take you to run a particular route previously? Can you beat your own time? Sometimes competition will be the determination to outdo your co-worker without having to voice it. 

Here are a few benefits of a competitive working environment:

  • It reduces laziness and indifference. Competition pulls employees out of their comfort zone and motivates employees to put in more effort.
  • There is increased employee responsibility. Employees take ownership of their performance. This increases their level of responsibility for the tasks they ought to achieve. When employees look at both failure and success as their own making, they are willing to invest more effort to get the results they want to be associated with.
  • Most people are naturally competitive. Most individuals enjoy the thrill that comes with competition. 

Have a compensation system that rewards the best performers. Employees can be motivated to perform better if they are rewarded based on excellence.

Set goals for employees that challenge their previous performance. By setting the bar higher each time, employees who perform superbly have a new challenge to beat.

Employees need honest feedback on their performance. This allows them to identify key areas that they should rectify or put more effort in. Avoid giving overly positive feedback even when the performance is bad, as it will result in a dysfunctional team.

Encourage employees to challenge one another without conflict. Employees who perform poorly should not be victimized. Keep the channels of communication open by allowing employees to give feedback on various tasks.

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.