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Healthy vs Toxic Competition in the Workplace


Everyone has a story about a workplace competition that went wrong; the rules were too complicated, or changed throughout the time frame; some employees were excluded, or it wasn’t something people wanted to do; there was that one guy who wanted to win so much he ended up ruining it for everybody. So, how do you walk the fine line between healthy and toxic competition in the workplace? Let’s discuss.

Healthy Competition at Work

Healthy competition can bring a team together by introducing a fun atmosphere and a new objective beyond just being the everyday, ordinary level of awesome that your team naturally is. To make sure the competition stays healthy, keep these three things in mind:

1. Make it Fun for Employees

The first part of introducing healthy competition to the workplace is finding a type of competition that your team will legitimately enjoy, and can participate in. For example, you don’t want a competition that requires a lot of time investment outside of normal working hours if your team generally has other commitments (childcare, volunteer work, etc.) during that time. Also, if you have a few older employees with health restrictions avoid things like touch football or a 5k marathon. You want everyone to feel included and have fun, no matter who they are.

2. Make the Competition Effective

Once you’ve started the competition, pay attention to how your team responds. If the competition doesn’t meet the goals you’ve set (productivity doesn’t increase, metrics aren’t being met, necessary work activities are being sacrificed in the name of competition), then you need to reevaluate, and possibly cancel the event, depending on the effects it’s having on the team.

3. Include a Reasonable Prize

This one is subjective and depends on a lot of factors, but it’s very important. The prize needs to be enough to motivate but not so over the top that it causes resentment among those who don’t win, a “nice to have” rather than a “prize of a lifetime.” There are some companies where a 10-day incentive trip would be a valid motivator that wouldn’t cause anyone to blink twice, and other companies where a more reasonable reward would be lunch for the winning team at the restaurant of their choice. If people are more focused on the reward than on how they’re working towards it, your choice of reward might be too much.

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Toxic Competition

Whereas healthy competition creates a fun atmosphere that brings a team together, toxic competition creates a tense atmosphere that drives people apart. Recognizing individual accomplishments isn’t about handing out participation trophies, but a way to make sure that one person isn’t always winning over and over again to the detriment of the rest of the department (hint: if your team starts referring to the prize as “The Kevin Award” because Kevin wins it every time, at any cost, consider reevaluating whether your lighthearted office competition is as motivational as you intended it to be).

Is Competition a Good Motivator For My Team?

This depends on your team, and on the type of competition. If people on your team are obsessed with being the best individually, introducing competition against other coworkers might not be the helpful motivator you’re looking for. If your team is cohesive and is more interested in bringing others up than putting others down, a little bit of competition might be a good way to encourage them to go above and beyond more often.

Above all, competition in the workplace should increase productivity by introducing a little bit of fun and disrupting the routine in a way that motivates your workers.

MTI Events has been recognized as one of Kansas City’s top small businesses in 2017. We specialize in travel incentive programs, meeting planning, special events, trade shows, merchandise incentive programs, team building and more.

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