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Creating Healthy Competition at Work

Competition in the workplace is a topic of conversation that often draws a lot of opinions. Having worked in sales roles my entire career, I have been surrounded by competition and have seen both the good and bad effects of it. One of the requirements of having competition in the workplace is transparency. How can you compete unless you know what other people are accomplishing, right? That is often the problem. Some departments have no problem opening the kimono of results (sales), while many other departments have a huge issue with openly comparing the results of employees to their colleagues.

As you could expect, I am partial to healthy competition in the workplace. I think it can add a lot of value, drive results, create transparency, and motivate your employees. That said, it has to be done right. I have seen rewards and competitions designed with good intentions, but which have ultimately alienated employees and created jealousy or spite. I have also seen competitions that are inclusive of everyone involved and create desired outcomes for management.

The problem with traditional competition is that it only rewards top performers, which equates to about the top 10 percent of your team. A-players are consistently being rewarded while B players are shown the carrot but never able to eat it. This results in a very happy and motivated group of about 10 percent of your team… It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this means close to 90 percent of your team is demotivated, bitter, etc. Dan Pink talks about this at length in his book, Drive. While I firmly believe that top performers should receive recognition and rewards for their efforts, I also believe that competition can be used effectively to motivate B-players and turn them into A-players.

Here are a few guidelines that I have identified for creating healthy competition in the workplace:

Be Transparent about Results

I strongly believe in the Results Only Work Environment or ROWE (gorowe.com), a workplace philosophy and consultancy firm created by two amazing and inspiring women, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson. It is built on the belief that work can happen any place, any time, and individual results are the only thing that matters when it comes to performance. I could write a whole other blog post on this, so I’ll just encourage you to check out their website for now.

You’ll have to decide what level of transparency your organization or team is prepared for. I know that many departments shiver at the thought of sharing personal results and performance, but sales people are used to having our key performance indicator (revenue) open and available for the entire company to see. It’s par for the course in today’s sales environment and my personal opinion is that other departments should adopt similar practices. Figure out what results you are comfortable sharing in front of the whole team and start your competition there. Share results regularly in meetings or using technology such as Salesforce if your company is in the twenty-first century!

Reward the Journey AND the Result

Think about a hockey team working together to win the Stanley Cup. Now imagine if they only received feedback and were rewarded when and if they won the cup — the coach would be missing an entire season of opportunity to reward great performance and motivate his team to perform better. Of course this would never happen in hockey. Players receive praise and feedback from their coach after every shift, every period, and every game.

The same should be happening with your players — aka employees. While you will undoubtedly reward your top performers at the end of the quarter, year, etc., it is equally important to recognize great performance on a daily or weekly basis. This can easily be done by identifying the activities that lead to the greater results you are looking for from your team. In sales, this can be number of phone calls, emails, booked meetings, and proposals sent. These are the activities that will ensure we all hit our longer-term goals. And by recognizing these activities along the way, it ensures that all employees are receiving rewards and recognition and not just the top 10 percent. Identify the smaller daily activities that will lead to business results on your team and start creating competitions around those activities.

Rewards Have to Be Meaningful in order to Motivate

Whether it is intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, you need to tap into what motivates your employees individually. Some employees would love to be recognized in front of the whole company with their name up in lights, while other employees would shudder at the thought of public recognition. Tangible rewards will only motivate people if it is meaningful to them. If someone hates coffee, then they aren’t going to be motivated by a Starbucks gift card. The top motivators in my experience are public recognition (non-monetary) and Visa gift cards (monetary). I’ll give a shout out to my former employer Achievers as best in class for recognition and rewards.

Any company can create a healthy culture of competition. Like anything else, it needs to be iterative and built by trial and error. When done right, competition can create a much more cohesive team, align employees to organizational priorities, and drive better business results.

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