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The Competition Within

Competition can increase motivation, improve productivity and performance, and provide accountability and validation. What happens when the competition to win for a business instead becomes the competition within?

Why do we like winning?

"Winning a competition activates the reward centers in your brain and produces a rush of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) in the hypothalamus, the pleasure center of the brain. Once you experience this rush, you're motivated to experience it again and again, leading you to want to be part of a competition."

When competition within a business is not managed carefully, it can seriously hurt your business, becoming a barrier to success instead of the fuel to help it grow. I've seen many leaders bring their successful, competitive sports learned mindset and culture into their business, setting up a culture of unhealthy politics, increased anxiety, difficult egos, and decreased engagement.

The book, Manage To Engage is a wonderful resource guide for businesses in creating a highly engaged workplace. As author, Pamela Hackett points out, there are numerous ways employee confidence can be undermined and extreme competition is one common complaint:

"Politics usually has its roots in competition, which is why rivalry within teams is unhealthy. Keeping that person who is always trying to one-up others is a negative"

Internal competition in businesses (competition within) can have both positive and negative impacts on success, depending on how it is managed and the overall company culture.

Positive Impacts of the Competition Within:

1. Increased Productivity: Healthy competition can drive employees to work harder, be more innovative, and find more efficient ways to do their jobs. This can lead to increased productivity across the organization.

2. Innovation: Competition can foster a culture of innovation, with employees and teams striving to outperform one another by developing new products, services, or processes to gain a competitive edge.

3. Skill Development: Competing with colleagues can encourage employees to develop new skills and improve existing ones to stay ahead. This constant skill enhancement can benefit both employees and the organization.

4. Motivation: Competition can motivate employees to set and achieve higher goals, leading to improved performance and outcomes. Recognition and rewards for top performers can further motivate employees.

5. Quality Improvement: Employees may compete to provide higher quality products or services, leading to an overall improvement in the quality standards of the organization.

In the HBR article, The Pros and Cons of Competition Among Employees, the authors raise a key question for consideration:

"What distinguishes competitions that unleash creativity from competitions that cause unethical behaviors? It depends on how the competition makes employees feel."

Be Aware of These Negative Impacts of Competition Within:

1. Collaboration Issues: Excessive internal competition can lead to a lack of collaboration and teamwork. Employees may hoard information or resist helping colleagues in fear of losing a competitive advantage. Team cohesiveness can suffer.

2. Stress and Burnout: Intense competition can lead to negative feelings, stress and burnout among employees, especially if the competition is cutthroat and constant. This can result in high turnover rates and decreased overall morale.

3. Focus on Short-Term Goals: Employees might focus on short-term gains to win competitions, neglecting long-term goals and sustainability. This can be detrimental to the company’s overall growth and stability.

4. Creativity Block: Too much emphasis on competition can stifle creativity. Employees might stick to proven methods and avoid risky, innovative approaches for fear of failure, which hampers long-term innovation.

5. Employee Disengagement: If employees perceive the competition as unfair or biased, it can lead to disengagement and resentment, which negatively impacts their overall job satisfaction and performance.

An important point made in the HBR article, The Pros and Cons of Competition Among Employees, is that messaging to employees is critical:

"the way in which leaders communicate about competition can make employees experience either anxiety or excitement, and those feelings influence whether they react positively or negatively"

Some Successful Ways to Manage Competition Within:

1. Balanced Approach: Encourage healthy competition that promotes growth and development without creating a toxic environment. Be aware of how you are recognizing and rewarding both individual and team achievements. Consider framing situations more as challenges (task focus) rather than competitions (people focused).

As Jack Stack highlights in The Great Game of Business:

“We turn business into a game that everybody in the company can play. It's fun, but it's more: it's a way of tapping into the universal desire to win, of making that desire a powerful competitive force.”

2. Promote Collaboration: Emphasize the importance of teamwork and collaboration alongside healthy competition. Encourage knowledge sharing and mutual support among employees. Remember, actions speak louder than words; saying you value collaboration and not demonstrating the behaviors that represent it, will quickly be seen as 'lip-service'.

"lighthearted, unrelated to work performance competitions are a great way to inject some element of competition into the workplace without making it about work, avoiding any resentment building up between coworkers or competitors"

3. Clear Communication: Clearly communicate the goals and rules of any internal competitions. Transparency can alleviate misunderstandings and promote a fair playing field. Communicate information, thoughts, and ideas clearly — and frequently — in different media.

4. Focus on Development: Use internal competition as a tool for employee development, growing staff to new levels of skills and performance. Provide training, mentorship, and resources to help employees improve their skills and abilities. Recognize development with rewards to motivate others. Managers who place employees who are similar in skills and talents against each other in a competition may experience a boost in motivation and performance.

5. Monitor Employee Well-being: Keep a close eye on employee stress levels and job satisfaction. Regular feedback sessions and employee surveys can help in understanding the pulse of the workforce.

While 'competition' isn't a dirty word, the competition within a business can be both positive and negative. By fostering a balanced and supportive competitive environment, organizations can harness the positive aspects of competition while mitigating its potential drawbacks, leading to overall success and growth.

Jerome Dickey, MA, PCC, CPHR, Q.Med


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