Is Competition in the Workplace a Good Thing?

By Chris Ihrig

Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman, authors of the new bestseller, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, contend that “to be successful you have to be able to perform when it counts.” Contrary to arguments put forward by authors Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin it is not thousands of hours of deliberate practice that makes you an expert. Rather, it’s competition.

Bronson and Merryman assert, “While our society upholds an ideal that creative genius is most prolific when it’s untainted and uninfluenced by petty outside forces—such as comparison to other, deadlines, or financial rewards—we conclude quite the opposite. Competition doesn’t kill creativity: it facilitates creative output by supplying motivational drive. Competition also teaches people to be comfortable with conflict and opposition, which is a necessary building block for developing the creative psyche.”

This thesis: competition is good seems to fly in the face of arguments put forward previously by Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards who writes and speaks about the deleterious effects of the classic carrots and sticks in schools and at work. Daniel Pink, author of best-selling book Drive has built a thriving consulting business extolling the virtues of intrinsic motivation by fostering autonomy, mastery and purpose. Competition also teaches people to be comfortable rather than relying on competition. In my own books, Accountability and Take Responsibility, I’ve argued strongly in favor of moving away from extrinsic motivators like sales contests.

So who is right? Is competition a good thing? The answer is: it depends.

Bronson and Merryman concede that competition is not good for all people in all situations. They acknowledge that there are a number of factors that impact on whether competition will be helpful. According to the research sited about 25% of people are unaffected by competition, 25% wilt in a competitive environment, and 50% benefit greatly from competition. There are gender differences as well – men tend to be overconfident of their ability to win and thus blind to some of the risks, women are more realistic about their chances. Genetics play a role – some people need to avoid stress in order to do well while others actually need stress in order to perform at their best.

Bronson’s and Merryman’s best arguments for the benefits of competition center on how feeling challenged improves performance. But, in order for competition to benefit performance, the contest must be close, that is, participants must feel that they have an opportunity to excel. Put simply: those who are not challenged tend to coast; those who see no chance to compete tend to give up.

Both points of view – that competition is good and that competition is bad – have some validity. It is true that competition, in the right circumstances for the right people can help boost performance. If you don’t believe it, just look at the number of upsets during the annual NCAA basketball tournament commonly called March Madness. Each year Cinderella teams knock off tournament favorites: they unexpectedly excel while the more highly rated teams wilt under the pressure. It’s also true that competition can lead to cheating – just look at the shenanigans that occur in the financial markets, people motivated to compete on the financial stage who, in the name of winning, cheat investors out of their money.

Creating extraordinary performance is part science and part art. Leaders must identify the unique factors that will produce extraordinary performance in their organization. Sometimes improving performance benefits by igniting the competitive fires; at other times better performance requires greater cooperation. Leaders must sort out what is working and what is not; build on strengths and to tear down barriers. Leaders must pay close attention to the unique attributes and conditions found in each individual and on each team. Is competition in the workplace a good thing? …it all depends on the people and the circumstances.