I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in the last decade competition within an organization got a bad name.
It could be that the emphasis on engaging employees and eliminating silos had something to do with it. It could be that the younger generation of workers, with its common desire for a more social environment and focus on “team,” has made its mark. It could be that the economic environment put everyone into a let’s-just-get-through-it funk. Whatever the reasons, competition of the healthy variety needs to come out of the closet and find its place on the list of best practices.
The trick to fostering a positive, internally competitive environment is to find the line between healthy and unhealthy competition. Unhealthy competition’s hallmarks include less assertive employees ending up as roadkill, promises made to customers that can’t be kept, and employees forming gangs in an effort to win whatever there is to be won. Healthy competition supports innovation, smart risk-taking, a "can do" atmosphere and fair play.
How do managers ensure that a culture of competition doesn’t become cutthroat?
Be a role model and demonstrate the behavior you expect in the workplace. This is critically important because employees learn what is and what is not OK from watching their boss. Don’t believe it? Look at any department. If the boss is regularly late to work, the employees typically won’t worry about being on time. If the boss is always texting or checking emails during a staff meeting, the staff will do the same. You get the picture.
In a healthy environment, managers support competition by embracing all those involved. Just as a parent of a six-year-old pee wee baseball player claps for every ball hit—regardless of which team the batter is on—so too will a manager praise and encourage each person on the job who is doing well or is making a contribution. A manager who can’t extend congratulations past her own department, or for other than a chosen few, should be introspective. After all, every contribution makes the organization stronger and potentially more successful. Healthy competition isn’t about choosing sides; it’s about celebrating everyone’s wins.
Set standards so that there is no confusion about how employees should treat each other. Then be sure to include behavioral feedback as part of your review of any accomplishment. Recognize and praise accomplishments that were achieved without pain and suffering on the part of another. Let your staff know that you value respect, emotional restraint and honesty. Conversely, be aware that “the end justifies the means” is the antithesis of positive competition. Check to see if you are excusing someone’s condescending behavior because he’s a great producer. Make sure you’re not overlooking morale-busting gossip or cliques because a department is meeting its productivity goals. If, like most, you find some of this quid pro quo going on, take the next evolutionary step and coach the offending person in how to reach the goal and maintain his personal integrity. Link it to his future success since rarely do these behaviors benefit the individual over the long haul.
Develop a competitive culture, one in which everyone works harder than if there is not a competitive atmosphere, and everyone wins because the push results in new skill sets learned, a heightened sense of urgency, a deeper level of knowledge about a subject or the others involved, and a spirit of community. Instead of creating a culture of positive competition through contests (although contests can be quite effective in meeting well defined short-term goals), create a competition that is global and evergreen—for example, a stretch-goal client retention rate—and include everyone in the organization.
Include them by identifying or having them identify how their contribution makes a difference to the client. Let the receptionist know that recognizing a customer by voice and efficiently routing the call sends a positive message. Remind the IT group that a user-friendly and fast system allows the client service team to retrieve customer information quickly when the client calls and allows for speedier updates to keep records current. Ensure that the producers correctly set clients’ expectations by communicating with the support departments and understanding what can be delivered, rather than promising more than can be provided in a time frame that can’t be achieved.
Healthy competition isn’t about someone winning and someone losing—it’s about everyone winning when the bar is raised and the organization sails over it. Keep competitive spirits high by being a good role model, setting behavioral standards and developing a culture that encourages each employee to push the envelope without pushing each other aside.