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How to Use Competition in the Workplace

Using competition in the workplace can be healthy and productive. Competition increases levels of chemicals like testosterone and is motivational in many situations. It also can cause stress and alienation, so it’s important to know how to make competition work for your organization. To do so, a great manager understands how competition affects all employees and how to build competition in a positive way.

Competition comes in two flavors. Direct competition is a one-to-one experience that produces only one winner. Cooperative competition occurs when a team works together to achieve a goal for the good of the group.

Direct competition

Direct competition, or competition between two individuals, can be destructive — if there can be only one winner, then there is always a loser. Too much competition within the workplace can lead to lower productivity, hard feelings, and a loss of focus. Anger and even hostility can arise to a point where people or teams won’t accept others’ ideas. As a leader, you need to carefully oversee competitive situations. This is especially true when an extrinsic reward — monetary compensation, extra perks, or a more prestigious position — is presented.

Intrinsic rewards for competition offer another approach worth considering. The feeling of accomplishing a goal can be reward enough. Acknowledgment from management and fellow workers might be sufficient motivation to get all employees to work harder and contribute more to the company. Because the male brain likes to compete, the intrinsic reward is in winning or being the best. Intrinsically, female brains consider acknowledgment by others motivating and yet still want others to feel good and be a part of the praise.

The question among many leaders is, “Do I praise them or raise them?” Offering bonuses for work well done has always been part of the business climate. Some research suggests that praising an employee in front of his peers motivates him or her more than money. Of course, either approach may be better for a particular individual.

Cooperative competition

In cooperative competition, a group or team sets a goal and pursues it together. Working together and helping each other releases brain chemicals that enhance motivation, pleasure, and bonding. The brain strongly desires these feel-good chemicals, and so the team is intrinsically motivated.

Working toward a personal best is also a healthy cooperative type of competition. The collaborative groups support each person’s quest to excel. Post a team chart that shows each individual’s current production rate. Together the team brainstorms ideas that work for each individual. Individual workers implement strategies; results are tracked on the chart. The whole team celebrates a person’s increases.

Research suggests that team composition works best if teams are divided by gender or have an equal gender split. A feeling of being a minority in any team is a problem. For instance, a team of four men and two women often results in the women contributing less. Mixed teams generate better ideas than single-sex teams. All-male teams are more likely to become overly competitive.

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