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The Collateral Damage of Competition in the Workplace

One of the very first Social Psychology studies, conducted over a hundred years ago, pitted children against each another in a contest, and found they outperformed their own solo efforts. Why? It’s in our brain chemistry. Competition (in the schoolyard or competition in the workplace) causes a stress response that activates energizing hormones (such as adrenalin). Success brings the activation of our brain’s reward system: feel-good hormones (such as dopamine).

So then why wouldn’t competition in the workplace bring out the best in your employees?

While competition brings out the best in some, it can be a drag on others. The adrenaline rush that makes some feel invigorated can also feel threatening and intimidating to others. Research has found that while 50% of employees benefit from competition, another 25% suffer as a result of it. Moreover, the negative repercussions tend to have an unequal fallout – predominately effecting less experienced employees and female employees.

What does competition in the workplace mean for your workplace culture?

  1. Competent, qualified employees can be discouraged from success at an organization, or even seek out other opportunities.
  2. Initiatives to diversify the workplace or foster new talent will likely be handicapped.
  3. Employees who seek out workplaces that have a competitive workplace culture, or who stay in them long-term are typically active contributors to toxic workplace culture.

How can your company prevent this risk pre-hire?

The hiring manager plays a critical role. A good hiring manager will:

  1. Match the person to the position. Employees differ in the impact competition has on them. Selecting the right employee, and pairing them with the right coworkers and leaders, can be essential to ensuring their success. Remember, even personality features routinely assumed to be negative can actually be beneficial in the right environment.
  2. Avoid candidates that would contribute to a more toxic workplace culture of competition (such as those higher in Narcissism and Psychopathy). Individuals high in these traits see cut-throat competition as the norm, and are willing to lie, cheat and sabotage to get ahead.

Pro-Tip: The most accurate and efficient way to do this is by adding pre-hiring assessments into your Talent Management Pipeline!

How can your company mitigate this risk post-hire?

Employee managers need to stay mindful of this issue when motivating their team. A good manager will:

  1. Avoid publicly shaming employees for mistakes or drawing attention to where one employee outshines another to prevent a culture of mistrust.
  2. Shift team members’ perceptions of one another from competitor to ally to create a supportive and cooperative team environment.
  3. Remember, one of the most important things a manager does to guide their team’s behavior is show, don’t just tell, the teamwork that is expected.

Teams thrive when they have a sense of unity, and a sense of purpose. With that, a little competitive stress can fuel an exciting performance boost. Check the pulse of your team with the Job Engagement Tracker to see if they’re ready for the rush of some friendly competition. When you know your team, you know when they’re ready to rise to the challenge.