Let’s face it. There will always be competition in the workplace, whether by design or not. Whenever employees perceive a resource as scarce, they’ll compete for it. Scarce resources can be tangible (a corner office, a promotion, a raise) or intangible (recognition, praise, becoming part of the in-group.) Every company with a recognition program is setting up competition among the staff. Some workers thrive on it; others hate it.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Callum Borchers suggests that some managers believe friendly rivalries produce better results than having everyone work together. He begins the article with the story of a data startup founder who, when he needs a great new idea, breaks some of his 45 employees into teams and challenges each group to outdo the others.
But, many companies have taken the opposite approach, reducing or eliminating internal competition in recent years as they try to hire and retain a generation of workers unaccustomed to being measured and compared. Some team members prefer to work cooperatively rather than feel under pressure to compete with their peers.
This same group also feels anxiety when put into a competitive situation. They worry more about losing or falling behind than they anticipate or strive toward winning. Social scientists have studied this phenomenon for years. Loss aversion is an almost universal human bias that makes us feel the pain of losing twice as powerfully as the pleasure of gaining. For some, anxiety at the prospect of losing can cause them to take shortcuts or cheat to achieve their performance goals – and avoid that pain.
Sales teams are comprised of workers who thrive on competition; that’s what makes them good at selling. That’s why we focus our efforts at XPG Recruit on athletes – they understand how to win. We also know that they learn how to win by learning how bad it feels to lose. One former collegiate athlete told us, “When you’ve experienced both, it’s easy to decide which one feels better. So you go out and figure out how to win. Watching film, working tirelessly on your technique, spending extra time in the training room, asking for one-on-one coaching… you work until you get back to the front of the pack.”
Most recruiters are naturally competitive. And the effectiveness of competition, when it is done correctly, is hard to deny. Competition spurs your best workers to find better ways to perform. They become innovative, energized by the thought of winning the sale, the award, or the prestige of being the best or the first. They perceive the stimulation they feel from competition as excitement. As a manager, stimulate success by providing incentives and rewards. Encourage them to push themselves and stretch their goals. Reward them for winning.
The goal for managers is to create excitement about competition and reduce anxiety. That means resisting the temptation to call out the lowest-performing individual or team. Business case studies have shown that humiliation for not performing leads to plenty of bad behaviors.
For those anxious and loss-averse, reward engagement and putting in the work to get better. They may never achieve superstar status, but you can recognize them for their progress. Rookie of the year. Most improved. Best in a specific category that doesn’t typically get much recognition.
Most importantly, model behavior that keeps competition friendly and respectful. Encourage the team to celebrate everyone’s wins, no matter how small. Ask strong performers to mentor and encourage their team members who are working hard. Make sure everyone knows that a team win matters more than any single person’s win. How we play the game matters, too.