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Updated Nov 20, 2023

Office Rivals? Keeping Workplace Competition Friendly

Competition is a healthy motivator most of the time, but don't let it get out of hand.

Isaiah Atkins
Isaiah Atkins, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
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Workplace competition can be healthy because it encourages employees to excel and push past their comfort zones while helping teams achieve their business goals. However, rivalries can sometimes get out of hand and cause turmoil and workplace conflicts. Small business owners and managers must create a workplace culture that strikes a delicate balance between competition and teamwork. 

We’ll explore how office rivalries affect the workplace positively and negatively and share tips for ensuring team members thrive in a supportive atmosphere of collaboration. 

How office rivalries and competition affect the workplace

Rivalries are common in the workplace, with or without management encouraging competition. Whether you want to benefit from friendly competition in the workplace or manage existing rivalries, it’s essential to understand the positive and negative aspects of a competitive company culture

A competitive working environment can have the following benefits: 

  • Workplace competition helps push people out of their comfort zones. Competition pulls employees out of their comfort zones and motivates them to put in more effort.
  • Workplace competition increases employee responsibility. Employees take ownership of their performance when managers view them in a broader competitive context. They feel more responsible about completing projects successfully and are willing to invest more effort to get the desired results.
  • Many employees enjoy workplace competition. Many people feel naturally competitive. They enjoy the thrill of competition and the pride of coming out on top.
  • Workplace competition spurs innovation. Standing out among the competition often means relying on something other than your usual methods to get results. With workplace competition, employees are incentivized to think outside the box, resulting in innovations and new solutions their rivals may not consider.
  • Workplace competition can strengthen team bonds. Group competition can serve as a team-building exercise that encourages employees to work together toward a common goal instead of staying isolated. When employees spend time with their peers, it can strengthen their connections and lead to more effective collaboration.

However, workplace competition can sometimes create a sour atmosphere where employees view one another as enemies. Here are some of the downsides of workplace competition: 

  • Workplace competition can be stressful. Being pitted against co-workers can be stressful, and a competitive atmosphere doesn’t work well for employees who thrive in a stress-free work environment. Instead of reacting with innovation and creativity, these employees may feel anxious and threatened.
  • Workplace competition can sabotage teamwork. When left unmanaged, workplace competition can move beyond friendly rivalries and leave employees unwilling to share ideas and feedback. It’s hard to collaborate when friendly rivals become enemies.
  • Workplace competition can create negativity and hostility. Employees who feel threatened by co-workers may turn to unethical and cutthroat measures to stay in their positions. A divisive atmosphere can affect employees’ mental health and increase turnover. 
  • Workplace competition can decrease morale. A team with communication challenges will wilt under the pressures of intense competition, leading to lower employee morale. 
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
A hostile atmosphere may lead to workplace harassment. If you're experiencing verbal, psychological or digital workplace harassment, report your experience to HR.

How to keep workplace competition friendly

So how does a business encourage the motivational and innovative aspects of workplace competition without experiencing the darker side of anxiety and hostility? It requires a balance, consideration of employees’ personalities, and a positive attitude from management. 

Here are some ways to proactively encourage healthy competition among employees or manage current rivalries. 

1. Have employees set goals.

Beyond money, businesses need incentives to motivate employees and help them thrive. “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 Centrical. “Additionally, extrinsic factors may create a sudden spike in performance, but intrinsic factors are more likely to generate a long-term behavioral change.”

To encourage healthy competition, Rimon suggested having employees set career goals for themselves, comparing their performance to a benchmarked performance of someone at their level. This method is similar to how fitness trackers 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.” 

TipTip
When you're building competition among employees, keep it friendly. Remember that a strong support system at work, including workplace friendships, boosts employee retention.  

2. Help team members find common ground.

 

Even if management isn’t actively fostering a competitive environment, rivalries may cause negative feelings and a toxic atmosphere. Mary Ellen Slayter, a career advice expert for Monster, advised management to help employees counter competitive tension by finding common ground through sports, shared hobbies or after-hours events.

Slater said employees who are stuck in a hostile atmosphere should make proactive changes. “If you can’t get the tension under control, find ways to distance yourself from your adversary,” Slayter advised. “Explore your options — from switching desks to switching companies — and remember that living, and working, well is the best revenge.”

3. Gamify competition in the workplace.

Motivated employees are a crucial asset to any business owner. Enjoyable challenges spur motivation and can be an excellent way to inspire and engage employees.

Gamification can help make workplace competition fun without pitting employees against each other. Consider gamifying employee engagement by challenging employees to beat their personal goals and top their previous performance. This type of competition can encourage employees to step up without having to publicly outdo the competition. 

Tips for friendly workplace competition

Here are some additional quick tips for keeping rivalries friendly in the workplace and boosting productivity

  • Give your best performers nonmonetary rewards. You may have a monetary bonus structure set up already. However, whenever possible, reward your best performers with perks, which are less likely to lead to resentment and conflict. Employees can be motivated to perform better if they’re rewarded based on excellence, but it doesn’t always have to be money.
  • Set “stretch” goals. Set goals for employees that challenge them to beat their previous performance. By setting the bar higher each time, employees who perform superbly have a new goal to achieve.
  • Give honest feedback on performance. Employees need honest feedback on their performance. Effective, constructive criticism helps them identify key areas of focus. Avoid giving overly positive feedback when performance is bad because it will result in a dysfunctional team.
  • Put ideas front and center. Instead of building competition by pitting skills against skills, focus on ideas. Host a brainstorming session that turns idea generation into a friendly rivalry. That way, no one’s work-related skills get directly compared, and no one feels they’re lagging behind their peers. Additionally, you’ll gather a wealth of innovative ideas to improve your business. 
Did You Know?Did you know
If power dynamics and workplace politics are affecting your office culture, promote communication and transparency among teams with regular meetings and demand accountability from all team members.

Promote and teach healthy conflict

Everyone’s an adult in the workplace and can handle competition, disagreements and even personality conflicts. However, workplace competition must stay respectful and friendly because it can affect the entire office and business operations when it goes sour. 

Encourage employees to challenge one another without conflict and cheer on each other’s successes. Keep communication channels open to stay on top of the office atmosphere, and step in when rivalries become too intense. The goal is to encourage motivation and every team member’s professional development.

Adam Uzialko contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Isaiah Atkins
Isaiah Atkins, Business Operations Insider and Senior Writer
Isaiah Atkins is a marketing and SEO consultant who is adept at using email campaigns, keyword research and other tools to help brands build strong online awareness. He assists clients with content management, effective communication strategies and audience engagement. This has translated into business advertisements, press releases and in-depth, research-heavy topical guides designed to move readers through the sales funnel. At Business News Daily, Atkins has provided entrepreneurs with actionable guidance on landing page conversion, ROI, business expansion and more, while also advising on business ideas and workplace management. A writer at heart, he is working on his first novel.
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