Toxic vs. healthy competition in the workplace
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Competition in the workplace isn't necessarily a good or bad quality. It all depends on the purpose of the competition, how it's applied and the desired outcome.
Healthy competition endeavors to work toward a common goal, whether it's increased revenues, increased customer base or increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.
The CEO might announce a target of X percent increase in sales over last year and invite feedback on how to achieve that goal. Effective strategies earn a bonus for the staff with special recognition to the staffer who conceived it. Submissions can be thoughtful proposals on how to implement, how to surmount roadblocks and how to analyze costs and projected benefits.
In this way, the CEO has inspired creativity and elicited best practices from the staff on the front lines.
"Employee of the month" programs can inspire healthy competition if the criteria for recognition are standardized, quantifiable and beneficial to the prosperity of the company. The rewards must also be concrete and be perceived as valuable to the employee or no one will exert the energy to compete. A plaque that no one sees or a short-term prime parking spot are shallow tokens and soon forgotten.
Management must consider what perks would be deemed rewards by their employees: A raise? Extra responsibilities as a promotion? A flat bonus? Stock in the company? Rather than assume you know what they want, why not ask them?
I once worked for a company that gave free stock to its employees as an incentive. And yes, it inspired competition and amazing creativity and high morale to know that if the company succeeded, the individual would profit, too.
Conversely, I also once worked for a company that would pass out a free coffee coupon for a job well done. All the recipients confided to me that this cheap gesture was meaningless since it was dispensed thoughtlessly and without regard as to whether the recipient was even a coffee drinker!
So when is a competitive spirit in the workplace not healthy? When it creates a toxic environment.
If the agenda of the competitive employee is to curry favor with authority figures at the expense of the rest of the staff, it has highly destructive repercussions.
That kind of competitiveness will demean others and frequently resort to lies and misrepresentation in order to get a "rung up the ladder." We've probably all worked at some point with the kind of person who would step on anyone to further his/her ambitions. Consumed with getting ahead, that person will stop at nothing or no one to gain power or prestige.
The company's overall health and prosperity are less important to this kind of person than individual ambitions. Instead of eliciting cooperation and best practices from all, this kind of toxic competition creates an atmosphere of dishonesty, distortion and mistrust. When you know a co-worker is trying to stab you in the back and sabotage your efforts, the concept of teamwork cannot apply.
I once worked for a manager who claimed credit for all his team's great ideas and assigned blame to them when his own ideas fizzled out in failure. Staff quickly learned not to make suggestions because they knew he would claim all the glory for himself and not share the rewards. End result: stagnation.
In addition to belittling and blaming others to make yourself look better, there's also sycophantic behavior as a kind of toxic competition.
The unwary boss might unwittingly give preference to the employee who wholeheartedly applauds all his ideas and heaps praise while looking amiss at the staffer who points out the unexpected loopholes and downsides. Although endless praise might make you feel good about yourself, it stifles creativity and innovation. Surrounding yourself with "yes" men neither improves the company's health nor your own professional growth.
Most humans are inherently competitive, wanting to stand out and be recognized for their unique achievements. Honor that inherent competitiveness to further the company's goals and inspire creativity and productivity.
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