Like with most things in life, competition can be great — in moderation. But the workplace has turned more competitive of late, with employees working longer hours, pursuing clients and projects more aggressively while vying for more limited positions. Although some competition can be healthy and can act as a good motivator, too much can have a negative effect on productivity, making workers too stressed and worried to do their job effectively. Or they can get burned out from striving too hard. This can create a drain on creativity and may ultimately cause good employees to look for work elsewhere.

In some industries, like sales or labor, competition tends to be more of a positive force. It drives employees to work harder because they’ll get recognition, monetary compensation, or better shifts. However, experts agree that it should still be carefully monitored so that it isn’t overdone. When it comes to developing a productivity strategy based on motivation — like when steel magnate Charles M. Schwab began posting the amount of steel the day shift produced to motivate the night shift to do better — the key is to motivate workers positively and with moderation.

Since in most industries competition can in fact be detrimental, it’s important to know some of the factors that tend to increase competition in the workplace, such as:

  • The economic landscape. In uncertain economic times, people tend to work harder to earn their keep, out of a fear of getting fired. When a possible layoff is between you and another person, it’s natural to become more competitive to show why you should be the one who stays.
  • Millennials. This growing generation of workers born after 1981 has changed the workplace landscape drastically. Their tendency to have high expectations about what they can achieve, combined with being accustomed to getting a lot of praise and recognition in their youth, makes them naturally more competitive workers.
  • Guilt. Often, competitiveness stems from an underlying feeling of guilt. If we’re not pushing ourselves to the max we tend to feel that we’re underachieving, and sometimes in trying to rectify the situation we end up overcorrecting.
  • Perfectionism. This is a key ingredient in increased competitiveness, and it usually stems from a misunderstanding of expectations. Working hard to meet carefully defined goals is one thing. Working hard without knowing what your goals are is quite another.

With competition threatening productivity and workplace morale, what can HR do to help? Here are a few ways in which companies can help their workers stay competitive without going overboard.

  1. Provide feedback. People tend to get more competitive when they don’t know where they stand in the company—are they doing well? Is there something they should be doing better? Are their managers happy? Regular feedback and reviews from management can help them get a better sense of how they’re doing, so they can relax a little bit.
  2. Give multi-dimensional evaluations. To the previous point, when you’re developing a review process, make sure to include more than just numbers. A person’s productivity depends on a variety of factors, and although it’s hard to take everything into consideration, it’s important that reviews cover more than just sales numbers and product output.
  3. Set examples. Oftentimes workers feel competitive and want to work more hours because they see their peers and managers doing it too. There are times when this kind of time spent in the office is necessary — a looming deadline, a new product launch — but make it clear that employees are not expected to work extra hours all the time, and encourage senior-level staff to set the example by sticking to 40-hour workweeks.
  4. Set goals. As with not knowing if you’re doing your job well, not knowing what your job actually is can also lead to increased competitiveness. Have managers set specific and clearly-defined goals for their departments and for each employee? That way everyone knows what he or she should be working to achieve.
  5. Be flexible. Focusing on getting the work done, and less on how exactly it gets done can help employees feel less stress and be less competitive in the office. Try to foster a more flexible workplace, for example by offering options to telecommute or work staggered hours.
  6. Change the culture. Most importantly, company culture has to change. If managers expect employees to work 80 hours a week, then no employee will feel comfortable working any less. The company itself must acknowledge if there’s a problem of unhealthy competition among coworkers and address it, before productivity begins to suffer.

There are many ways you can help manage the level of competition to suit your company and your employees. Some companies are getting creative. Take for instance Volkswagen, which automatically turns off employees’ company email accounts 30 minutes after the end of their shifts. And BMW is working on a system so that employees can’t be contacted after hours. Whatever methods you choose, the important thing is to be aware that a little competition can motivate, but a lot can hurt your employees, and thus your company.

Adina Miron

3 Comments

  • Avatar Diane Redding says:

    My subjective point of view is that every workplace must create a slightly competitive environment so that employees would want to become better, do their job faster and come up with new ideas. What else can stimulate employees to do so apart from paycheck? From my experience, those companies which lack competitiveness turn into stagnant ones too soon.

  • Avatar Paul says:

    Competition is a good thing, if not being overused. If there’s too much competition then a friendly workplace can turn into a hostile environment, where everyone tries to outtop their colleagues and can go to any length to do so. Such office environment can’t foster productivity, but rather destroy the office morale.

  • Avatar Mary Schefield says:

    I agree that a reasonable level of competition benefits any organization, whilst too much competition creates unhealthy atmosphere in the office, which makes people hate the place and what they do. But, as with most things, in order to ensure that only friendly competition is present in your office, you have to provide your employees with some kind of training.

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