Why Workplace Competition Can Lead to Both Very Good and Very Bad Outcomes

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Competition in the workplace is a difficult beast. On the one hand, there can be scenarios, especially in fields like sales, where it is useful to have employees trying to outdo one another. On the other, overly competitive workplaces can breed resentment, sabotage, and even corruption — not to mention general day-to-day unpleasantness for employees.

In a new article in Harvard Business Review, the researchers Anna Steinhage, Dan Cable, and Duncan Wardley offer some insights on when competition does and doesn’t lead to backstabbing and other forms of unethical behavior. The short answer, according to their research, is that when competition elicits excitement, employees are more likely to engage in creative problem-solving and less likely to do unethical things. When competition elicits anxiety, on the other hand, things head in a bit of a Lord of the Flies direction.

Here’s one example:

In one study, we asked 204 employees from a variety of industries how different employment policies at their company (such as bonuses, performance management, and promotions) made them feel. We also asked them to think about the behaviors they use to distinguish themselves from other employees.

Some of the behaviors we asked about were creative, such as “Search out new technologies, processes, techniques, and/or product ideas.” Other behaviors were unethical, such as “take credit for your colleague’s work” or “agree to help your colleague but plan not to follow through.”

The results showed that when the employment policies elicited excitement, employees were significantly more likely to use creativity. When managers felt anxious about employment policies, they were significantly more likely cut corners or sabotage colleagues.

That finding, which the researchers say has been repeated in various experiments they’ve conducted dealing with other sorts of scenarios as well, is important “because many leaders, particularly in competitive industries, believe that it is motivating to publicly deride losers of internal tournaments,” they write. “For example, the sales cultures adopted by many banks in recent years ridicule those who miss targets. One manager described his firm’s weekly ‘Cash or Cabbages day’ where those who missed their bonuses were publically given cabbages instead of cash.”

The excitement-versus-anxiety aspect of this research fits a bit into the broader literature on so-called mind-set interventions. The basic idea is that when we encounter stress, we aren’t predestined to respond to it in a particular, negative way. Rather, it’s often possible to reframe stress as something that will make us stronger and better, that can help us live up to both present and future challenges. If it can work for Olympians, it can work for office denizens too. It’s something managers should keep in mind.

Why Workplace Competition Is a Double-edged Sword