Why Competition Isn't Always a Great Workplace Motivator

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Does employee competition have a place in the office? Depends on whom you ask.

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Proponents of competitive work environments say that competition provides a necessary challenge that pushes employees beyond their comfort zones. Opponents argue that competition puts undue stress on employees and fosters negative feelings among team members.

While some top performers may thrive on competition, their opponents have a valid point. Competition isn't good for everyone. In fact, according to the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, 25 percent of employees wilt under competition and another 25 percent aren't affected by it one way or the other.

"Competition isn't a one-size-fits-all motivator, and when you apply it without thinking of the consequences, you may be actually harming your business," says Gal Rimon, CEO of digital motivation platform GamEffective.

When there's competition, that means there are winners and losers. As Rimon points out, encouraging some employees to see themselves as winners of a competition means also encouraging other employees to see themselves as losers – regardless of whether you realize it or not.

"It may be great to have those top-performing 20 percent of employees, but how should the remaining 80 percent think of their performance?" Rimon asks. "Would their perception as 'losers' cause them to feel disengaged and begin looking for another job? Some people aren't that tuned to competition and prefer not to take part when targets are expressed in overly competitive terminology. Some people actively disengage when they think they can't win – and a winning business needs middle performers to shine, because there are so much more of them compared to top performers."

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Rimon cites an experiment in which people given a bonus performed better briefly – but then, a week later, their performances dropped below their pre-bonus levels. Rimon also points to the work of author and motivation expert Daniel Pink, who argues that because competition is an extrinsic motivator, it is less likely to encourage people in the long run. It's better to depend on intrinsic motivators for long-term engagement.

"Competition is complex, tied to self-esteem and to how we understand success," Rimon says. "Presenting one version of competition at work may create a conflict for employees – one they'll resolve by resisting workplace competition."

The Alternative to Competition

Instead of fostering competition between workers, Rimon suggests leaders and managers "focus on helping people sense they are successful by frankly discussing their personal work targets and working toward them." Work goals don't have to be simple or unchallenging, but they should be about the employee achieving something – not about the employee beating other people.

Of course, this doesn't mean that competition has no benefits at all. It's all about how you implement it.

"Competition can be used, but in a friendly manner that doesn't obliterate others," Rimon says. "So you can celebrate top performers, but perhaps you should also celebrate other people's successes, such as people who've radically improved or accomplished something new relative to themselves."

"We're not advising to obliterate competition, and it [can be] a wonderful human motivator," she adds. "We are suggesting that using it as a one-size-fits-all motivator can backfire."

Plus, employees who thrive on competition won't necessarily lose their edge just because the workplace has become less competitive.

"Workplace culture can't change people's personalities, and [competitive employees'] contributions as the competitive people they are can still be recognized," Rimon says. "After all, it isn't such a bad personality trait. However, space should be made for people who aren't motivated by competition, but rather by personal, internal, and intrinsic accomplishment."

There are many ways to motivate employees, and different workers will respond positively and negatively to different motivators. That's something to remember, especially when it comes to company culture and employee performance management. A more inclusive corporate culture that encourages all personality types to succeed will have a direct impact on the bottom line.