Competitions have long been known to be effective at driving groups of people. They tap into the human desire for rewards and social recognition and increase our level of effort. It is no wonder then that most organizations have an employee of the month, sales leaderboard or some other form of publicly viewed internal competition.
Such initiatives come with risks though – in a professional environment, the seriousness of repercussions can take away the spirit of competitions, leading to bitter and resentful feelings between rivals. Hyper competitive sales teams are rife with stories of client sabotage and strategic 'trip-ups' that benefit the perpetrators at the team's expense, doing more harm than good for the organization as a whole.
To reap the benefits of competitions without risking encouraging Machiavellian behavior, here are some actionable ways of leveraging employee's competitive natures while still maintaining a sense of unity within the team:
1. Create a 'Low Risk' Environment
Losing isn't fun; the last thing an under-performer needs are punishing measures for not having lived up to a competition's demands.
Aside from core business metrics, managers have no reason to inflict punishment on those who fail to excel - this will only destroy feelings of security and the sense of fun associated amongst the competitors. In short, the message conveyed should be that it is just a game.
2. Pick the Group Carefully
The road to success is paved with losses, but if you've ever been on the wrong end of a clear skills mismatch, you're familiar with the sinking feeling associated with a decisive loss. Such losses don't only hurt our pride - they often demotivate us. After a crushing defeat, it is easy to forget the improvements we've already made and lose the will to continue in our pursuit of getting better.
The need for skill similarity applies both to sport and workplace competitions – There will always be favorites. Still, it is essential that everyone feels as if they have a chance of winning if you plan to maintain a highly motivated team.
Similarly, group size should be limited to members who know each other and frequently interact in daily professional life. As well as making winning more of a realistic prospect, this also helps foster greater trust and physiological safety amongst the group.
3) Publicize Winning Tactics
Winners, of course, should be compensated for their efforts – interestingly though, research has shown that the prize awarded to winners doesn't have to be large to get benefits in terms of member effort.
It is the praise and public acknowledgement of winners that provide the majority of pleasure from winning. One way to do this is through an award ceremony where winners publicly share their formula for success with the rest of the team to improve processes for next time.
Doing this will create role models within your organization and give employees a set of clear desirable behaviors to emulate. Just be sure to keep the winners in rotation, giving those competing for a new sense of hope for next time.