Shooting Yourself in the Foot: Five Ways Internal Competition Kills Productivity

“How can we trust one another if we’re competing in a dog-eat-dog culture? Instead of trust, fear prevails.” —Evan Rosen, executive director of The Culture of Collaboration Institute.

In military and police organizations, the professionals involved are well aware that if they’re not extremely careful, their actions can be lethal to co-workers. Navy SEALS call it “blue-on-blue,” but it’s better known as “friendly fire.” This occurs when personnel find themselves accidentally under fire from their own side. Most police or service people with combat experience have stories of tragedies or near-tragedies that occurred during the aptly-named “fog of war.” Sadly, friendly fire can kill you just as dead as enemy fire.

Friendly fire is common in the workplace, too. While it may not prove lethal, it can kill your motivation and morale, and with them, your productivity. Unfortunately, internal competition is often imposed from above in the form of unnecessary contests, forced ranking of workers from best to worst, and the pitting of individuals against each other by ill-informed managers who believe competition forces everyone to improve.

According to research cited in the book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, one-quarter of workers basically ignore competition, while another 25 percent “wilt” in the face of it—i.e., disengage from their jobs. The remainder often benefit, but let’s be clear here: it’s best to direct competition outside your organization. Otherwise it can become divisive and damaging.

Here are five good reasons to leave competition at the office door:

  1. It damages collaboration. Some competition may seem healthy, but it isn’t always productive. Too much puts you at odds with at least some of your co-workers (so much for team building). These days, most jobs require the cooperation of multiple people just to complete a finished product, and you can’t cooperate if you’re always competing—for resources, for headcount, for funds. Rather than cementing your team, it splits you apart. “Every man for himself” leaves everyone flailing unproductively.

  2. It can create a culture of fear. When internal competition creates conflict, workers lose trust in each other and their management. In a dog-eat-dog workplace, fearful workers spend much of their time engaging in self-preservation, political maneuvering, passivity, one-upmanship, even backstabbing—energy that might have gone to productive work elsewhere.

  3. Communication may fail. Sometimes the lines of communication between individuals, teams, or divisions get deliberately cut by internal competitors. Even when they’re not, people may communicate or socialize less if they’re more worried about a co-worker’s success than their organization’s.  Workers grow less likely to share experience, and some will keep secrets that might be helpful to others just for their own competitive advantage. If taken to extremes, this can lead to total disaster. Production teams complain enough about sales and marketing not listening to them; imagine if they didn’t talk at all because they were more interested in competing internally. Imagine what would happen if only sales and marketing, two normally interrelated departments, failed to communicate because of some misguided contest or deeper divide. Companies have failed for less.

  4. Mutual understanding falls apart. When competition kills communication, workers lose track of (or stop caring about) the bigger picture, which is what really matters in the long run, as it keeps them all employed. The business’s course becomes less obvious, meetings become contentious and unproductive, and Mission and Vision fall by the wayside. People stop worrying about core values, and no one remembers how to align their goals with the organization’s or even care to.

  5. Engagement dies a painful death. While strict competition may cause people to own their jobs more than they normally would, it doesn’t encourage top-down ownership. True engagement comes when a worker cares as much about their work as the business’s founder, and that requires a broad mutual understanding of the organization as well as a willingness to collaborate in order to see the Mission and Vision come true. No matter how deeply you own your job, true engagement dies if everyone looks out for Number One and Only.

Given the above, internal competition rarely causes things to fall apart as disastrously as I’ve indicated above. Most people do benefit from some level of internal challenge, but truthfully, it’s the intrinsic rewards—increased self-esteem, satisfaction for a job well done, productive teamwork—that have the best traction, not material rewards. Those are nice, but when chasing them devolves into little fiefdoms and deliberately siloing information, it kills productivity. Let’s compete against our actual competitors instead!

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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