Competition can tear people apart. Whether it’s friends fighting over their love interests or disputes over money, the wrong kind of competition can sour even the strongest relationship.
But not all competition is bad. In a business environment, it can motivate workers to perform at a higher level. Across a company, it can create camaraderie, build culture, and boost focus.
What’s the difference? The first sort is destructive; the right kind is constructive.
How can you get the good parts of competition without risking the bad? It’s all about context. Here’s how to get your team members to butt heads in ways that build your business:
1. Be open about your expectations.
Whether it’s a sales competition or a summer fun run, it’s critical that you tell participants what you expect from them. Remind everyone that, regardless of who wins, you’re one team. That means no disparaging comments, dirty tricks, or hard feelings afterward.
There may be periods when your upfront spiel isn’t enough. When that happens, simply bring everyone together for an open dialogue. Left unchecked, excessive competition can lead employees to overwork themselves to the point where productivity actually drops.
If you do need to have a heart-to-heart with your team, realize it doesn’t necessarily mean you failed to create the right environment. Competition can get out of control on even the closest team. What counts is whether and how the team comes back together.
2. Put employees in teams or pairs.
One danger of an overly competitive work environment is that it isolates workers from one another. In that context, even the smallest mistake or shortcoming can be demoralizing. The result can be frustration, aggression, and ultimately, employee turnover.
To combat this, put employees in pairs or teams. Having even one other person on your side can stave off a sense that everyone is out to get you. Be sure to move people around periodically to fight the formation of cliques.
If you’re not sure how to pair people up, try personality types. Not only does it reduce the risk employees think you’re playing favorites, but different types can shore up each other’s shortcomings.
3. Start with the fun stuff.
Words have a way of tripping people up. The word “competition” can be upsetting or scary for some people. Words like “game” or “contest” have more positive connotations.
But don’t just use the word “game” and think it’s enough. Before setting up things like client service competitions, get employees used to fun contests. Favorites include:
Get everyone moving, especially if you run a desk-based business. You’ll cut your health insurance costs while reducing absenteeism.
Cook-offs and potlucks
Who can cook up the tastiest chili? Do the bakers on your team have a favorite cookie?
Who knows the most about British rock bands of the ‘60s? What about Civil War generals?
Is your agency or the one down the street better at baseball? Who’s got game when it comes to basketball?
Once everyone is comfortable playing games together, graduate to work competitions. The healthy competition you’ve built should translate seamlessly.
4. Emphasize self-competition.
Constantly comparing yourself to others is anxiety-inducing. It’s much more fulfilling to compare yourself to your own accomplishments.
Encourage employees to set their own goals. Maybe your email marketer’s goal is to boost her clickthrough rate by 5% next month. Perhaps your engineers have a per-feature development time to beat.
The key is to redefine winning. Remind your team: When you’re competing against yourself, it doesn’t matter how anyone else performs. All that counts is whether or not you can post a personal best.
5. Offer the right rewards.
Rewarding employees for their growth is critical. To figure out the right rewards, it’s important to know what your employees value.
In some contexts, bragging rights might be enough to get people going. In other situations, a bonus at the end of a quarter would make more sense.
The good news is, rewards don’t have to break the bank. You could offer winners:
- A physical trophy
- Extra time off work
- A prime parking spot
- Free lunch on the company
- An office or desk location of their choice
- Gift cards to local retailers or restaurants
The key is to align the prize with the effort required. Offer too small a prize, and people might not feel motivated to work for it. Make it too big, and the competition could become cutthroat.
The key to office competitions boil down to one word: healthy. It’s a balancing act: You don’t want to create tension on the team, but you also don’t want people to feel like it’s OK to coast.
You know your team best. Pair people thoughtfully. Offer prizes they’ll actually appreciate. Dip your toes before diving straight into revenue- and cost-related competitions. Interteam competition is valuable, but only when it’s done right.