Most workplace environments create competition between employees. It’s an inevitable part of our working life, whether we’re competing for bonuses, promotion or simply recognition.
Every sector has a competitive workforce including law firms, banks, major corporations, tech companies and many more. This leads to the question, is competition in the workplace healthy? In our editorial, we’ll compare the pros and cons of a competitive workforce and look at the different ways employees can achieve positive results.
Pros and cons of workplace competition
Research into competition has come up with some interesting results, as it can have completely opposite effects on some employees, depending on their own psychological makeup.
Some studies suggest workplace competition can motivate employees, spurring them into putting in more effort and achieving better results. Healthy competition has been shown to increase psychological and physiological activation, preparing the mind and body for increased effort. In turn, this enables higher performance.
For others, however, competition feels unhealthy. Surveys have revealed competition can provide challenges that push some employees beyond their comfort zone, putting them under unnecessary stress. It can also cause them to foster feelings of negativity towards competing team members.
Some employees feel worried and anxious, because they focus too heavily on the threat of potentially being demoted or laid off, losing income and feeling humiliated, if they can’t hit targets.
What are the different ways employees can achieve results?
Some workplace competitions focus employees on winning public recognition and a coveted bonus. This arouses interest and makes employees feel excitement and anticipation.
Other forms of motivation include enabling employees to demonstrate their innovation skills. They can compete to find new opportunities for bringing a product to the market faster, or improving customer service, for example. This type of internal competition provides a real competitive advantage for the company.
Companies need to distinguish types of competition between those that unleash creativity in employees and others that cause anxiety. It’s all down to how the employees feel individually.
How can competition impact employees emotionally?
Excitement and anxiety are two different emotional responses at opposite ends of the scale. These emotions make employees behave differently. When they feel anxious at the prospect of competition, they are more unlikely to use creative behaviour to problem-solve. When they feel excited at the prospect of competition, they are more likely to respond in a creative manner to solve problems.
A study of 204 employees in Harvard Business Review were asked how they felt about various policies at their place of work. They were chosen from a variety of industries. The respondents who found the competition exciting and challenging said they would be likely to problem-solve creatively by trying new techniques and processes, searching out new technology and looking for new product ideas.
Those who felt anxious about rising to the challenge admitted they may agree to help colleagues, but failed to follow through, while some even admitted they may take credit for colleagues’ work to avoid looking foolish. Managers who felt anxious about employment policies said they would be “significantly more likely” to cut corners to achieve the required results in the necessary timeframe.
How can managers combat employee anxiety?
The way managers communicate can make employees experience excitement or anxiety about competing. Leaders must generate excitement by emphasising the potential positive benefits of competition. They should highlight the recognition and rewards that await those who perform well, rather than creating anxiety by highlighting the negative impact of low-performing staff.
Managers should encourage employees to use their personal strengths to benefit themselves, colleagues and the company as a whole.
When announcing a competitive project, leaders must remind employees to use the unique creative skills that they are particularly good at. Highlight how a successful project will benefit customers and achieve the organisation’s goals.
Competition between employees may be an inescapable part of many people’s work lives, but leaders must lead through enthusiasm and a positive attitude, rather than leading through fear.
Does coworking space boost competition at work?
If you’re based in a coworking space, there is a different set of challenges. Studies show people tend to thrive in this environment, because there are numerous small businesses, entrepreneurs, startups and individuals competing not with each other, but to establish and grow their business. The atmosphere encourages ambition and healthy competition, with the challenge being how to make your business succeed, rather than competing against your colleagues.
Research carried out over several years reveals employees say they are “thriving” in a coworking space. On average, they report their level of enthusiasm as being six on a scale of seven.
Unlike in a traditional office, people in coworking spaces work for a variety of different companies, projects and ventures. With little direct competition and a lack of internal politics, no-one feels it’s necessary to put on a “work persona” to fit in and go with the flow.
Their own identity becomes stronger as they work among people doing different types of work. The need to be competitive in a negative way, such as feeling like you much succeed because you’ll look foolish if you don’t, simply doesn’t exist. Any feelings of anxiety are soon replaced with enthusiasm, positivity and creativity as the direct pressure to succeed in comparison to colleagues melts away.
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