Rivalry in the ranks

Internal competition can hurt your company culture


During graduate school, the day before one exam I was sick and asked a friend if she would share her class notes. 

You know how sometimes the day before an exam you can pick up some hints about the upcoming test? Well my friend Lois came to visit after the class and gave me a list of items the professor said would not be on the exam. To my surprise, the next day all of those items were right there on the test!


Our class was small and Lois and I had become quite good friends. I was astonished when I saw the questions on the exam. When I asked Lois about the situation, she shrugged and said, “I just wanted to get a better grade than you.”   

I didn’t get it then and still don’t. I am sure the prof could give out as many A’s as he felt appropriate. Lois and I were able to heal our friendship, but I never came to an understanding of her behavior that day. I got as far as realizing it was about competition, but I never figured out what the prize might be.

In coaching within business organizations, I’ve learned that to encourage innovation, many companies set up creativity contests and reward the employee who comes up with the best idea. There may be a panel of judges to name the winner, or sometimes a jury of one – the CEO or head of R&D.

Setting up a competition like this has fueled some great results. Some organizations, like AT&T and American Express, extend the contests to customers.

However, when employees are pitted against each other, it can become costly to the organization. The spirit of teamwork dies. Conflicts increase and morale can go down. The contests, in a sense, discriminate against women, as women often prefer to work in collaboration rather than competitively. Forced ranking fuels the costly aspects of the competitive environment.

An even more costly type of competition is when it is underground. A rivalry between two employees can infect the organization and often has no real basis. One associate can create a belief that another is standing in the way of her success in the organization; soon, almost any interchange between the two becomes a part of the imagined threat. 

When I work with this situation, I always try to figure out: what is the prize they seem to want? It might be to feel they are the favorite in the eyes of the boss. Unfortunately, before long, employees may take sides in this imagined or drummed up conflict and it becomes more costly, as attention is diverted from production and toward the drama within the team or department.

Fortunately, these costly situations can be neutralized and even prevented. Teamwork can become a part of how you do business. Rewards can go to teams rather than individuals. Job descriptions can be shared in full so roles are clear. Incentives can be offered for outstanding teamwork. If you see a little soap opera developing within the ranks of your reports, you can face it head on and coach the employees to resolve it skillfully and respectfully. You can encourage focus on external competition rather than internal.

To inspire innovation within the ranks, set up systems for the idea people to collaborate, provide the resources they need and keep management out, other than offering support and recognition.

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