Internal competition: Motivator or Demotivator?

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Internal competition – motivator or demotivator?         

Managers typically are more competitive than average employees. So it’s natural for managers to want to create a competitive spirit between employees, shifts, divisions and locations. And some employees respond really well to this competition. It can even get carried away to include gaming the system to improve your score over your colleagues, and other destructive side effects.

A classic example is the typical employee of the month program. Inevitably a few top performers win the monthly award and most of the other performers don’t even try to get the award. Management would be better off to set a standard of excellence and work with every employee to improve from week to week and month to month.

Using Measurements Effectively

Overly competitive behavior helps explain why silos form within an organization and cause a lack of cooperation between departments and divisions. The simple act of measuring performance, which organizations have got much better at, can be part of the problem. Measuring and metrics are absolutely essential to managing well. The challenge for the manager is HOW to use the measurements. Without a constructive context, employees will substitute the sports context and assume that the measure is a competition for bragging rights.

Focus on Excellence, not Comparison

Instead of pitting one person or department against the other, the manager should use the data and information to feed continuous improvement and the goal of achieving excellence across the organization. Instead of giving high-fives to the high-scoring departments, and scolding the lower-scoring departments, the manager should dig deeper to look at what is contributing to the success of the better performing department and cross pollinate these practices to the other departments.

Sometimes leaders will go too far to avoid competition: A recent example shared by one of our training participants involved two production employees. The high performing employee was achieving 130% of production standard while the lower performer was only achieving 70%. The team leader in the department, not wanting to cause ill feelings, averaged out the two and put down that both were achieving 100%. When the department manager found out, he suggested having the high performer work with the low performer and within a few days the bottom performer improved to 110%. Now their combined output was at 120% of standard, a 20% improvement.

The site manager at one of our client’s locations stopped comparing the output of the day shift and the afternoon shift because he saw that employees tending to juggle the work orders to try and beat the other shift’s numbers. Instead of comparing, the site manager focused on the total output for the entire day and not shift by shift. Even though they still measure the output of each shift, the site manager encourages teamwork by focusing on combined efforts.

Beware of Rewarding the Wrong Behavior

Managers look to incentive schemes to manage employee behavior, often with unintended consequences. Incentives and recognition programs that are not accompanied by a genuine appreciation for individual and team contributions in a personable manner will not achieve the desired outcomes.

Putting Ideas into Action: Focus on Achievement, not Competition

  1. Focus on performance versus potential instead of comparison between individuals and departments.
  2. Avoid making negative comments about other departments – create a positive, respectful relationship that supports teamwork across divisions and locations.
  3. Ask high performers to reach out and share best practices with areas that are struggling.
  4. Recognize gains at every level when the individuals and teams actualize their potential and create better results.

A workshop that helps managers and supervisors use more constructive leadership approaches will help overly competitive or overly laid back leaders achieve the best outcomes.