Competition is a foundational and essential element within the sports world. It’s generally viewed as a positive thing, catalyzing athletes and teams to higher levels of motivation and performance. Yet, more often than not, competition between individuals or entities within the business world plays a negative or divisive role. Leaders need to be especially aware of what type of competitive environment they’re fostering within their team.
So what creates unhealthy and healthy competition?
Unhealthy competition is oriented towards:
Scarcity and fear. Competition is unhealthy when it presupposes that there’s only a limited amount of success or achievement available out there in the world. In that way, it’s based on scarcity and fear rather than abundance. It says, “I have to fight to get my piece of the pie, or else others will get it and nothing will be left for me.”
Getting validation and attention. When competition is motivated by a desire to get attention and validation from others, it’s ultimately coming from a place of insecurity and self-doubt. This weaker foundation negatively impacts one’s ability to perform and compete at the height of their potential. At the same time, it’s so narrowly self focused that it forgets about the broader team or community.
Diminishing others. Competition can become even unhealthier when it’s about tearing others down. It’s one thing to be motivated by self-interest, but another thing to start actively sabotaging the performance of others. This ill will and destructive activity not only hurts others but also eats at the core of the person or entity dolling it out.
Winning at all costs. Unhealthy competition puts a disproportional amount of emphasis on the outcome, rather than valuing the process or the journey involved in getting there. And when the outcome becomes the sole focus, it can promote the idea that a person or team has to do “whatever it takes” in order to succeed. This mentality can then lead to all sorts of bad decisions and unethical practices.
“Healthy competitors are less concerned about how they stack up to others, and more interested in stretching into new realms of personal potential.”
Healthy competition is oriented towards:
Advancing the entire field or organization. Healthy competition puts at least some amount of focus on the bigger-picture intention of benefiting an entire organization, industry, or discipline. When an individual breaks a record or achieves something new, it’s viewed as an important step towards broader success and expanded potential for everyone.
Unlocking personal potential. Although competition can put focus on the individual at times, what is the nature of that focus? Is the individual more oriented towards getting glory or credit, or are they using competition as an opportunity to push themselves to a new level of performance? Healthy competitors are less concerned about how they stack up to others, and more interested in stretching into new realms of personal potential.
Honoring mutually held values. When I think about some of the greatest competitive events in the realm of sports, it seems to me that there’s an almost unspoken unity drawing players and teams together – a sense of shared values. Things like perseverance, honor, grit, fairness, and integrity. Sure, we can probably think of exceptions to this (situations where values were ignored). But, for the most part, healthy competition emphasizes this greater ideal versus the individual benefit of a particular athlete or team.
The journey along with the outcome. In contrast to unhealthy competition, the most effective competitive environments recognize the value of the journey. Rather than putting all the focus on the end goal, they draw attention to the learning and wisdom gained throughout the process of getting there.
So how can you encourage healthy competition in your workplace team?
Make it part of your team's ethos.
One of the best ways to encourage any behavior is to incorporate it into your team's stated values or vision. This creates a foundational expectation around the behavior and increases the chances that it'll be come part of the team's core character.
Talk about what it means.
Stated values are helpful, but not if they remain words on the page or posters on the wall. To bring values alive and gain true buy-in from the team, everyone has to be clear about what "healthy competition" really means. What are the associated behaviors? What does it look like in practice? As a leader, you can pose these questions and foster a shared discussion.
Clarify the why.
In addition to creating clarity about what healthy competition means, help the team see all the benefits of behaving this way, and the drawbacks of not doing so. This will help team members feel more motivated around it. And, similar to the previous point, instead of giving them your opinion, take a coaching approach by asking questions that stimulate discussion.
Model it yourself.
"Do what I say, not what I do" isn't an effective leadership approach. You can't ask your team to behave in ways that you don't embody yourself. They need to see that your actions and words encourage healthy competition, and then they'll be more likely to follow suit.
Hold people accountable.
If you'd like a behavior to really stick, you've got to hold people accountable when they don't live up to the agreed-upon standard. Otherwise, they'll quickly see that the desired standard must not be that important. Accountability can take various forms, but probably the most effective would involve having a conversation to share feedback and concerns, and to get fresh alignment around the desire for healthy competition.
Point to inspirational examples.
Highlight other leaders and teams who are experiencing success while incorporating the tenets of healthy competition. This will add more validation around the benefits of being this type of team, and can provide helpful inspiration for truly living the value of healthy competition day-to-day.