Office Competition – What Employers Should Know  

The nature of competition depends on the form it takes, whether its allowed to run unbridled, and a great many other factors. In certain cases, competition forces people to become better at their jobs. However, for some people in certain situations, competition can create an unhealthy, aggressive atmosphere. A popular concept in the workplace currently is that of gamification, where managers find ways to create a “game” out of the work to be done. Essentially, this creates competition that should, in theory, drive people to be better. However, it is rarely this simple.

Personality Factors

It is important to recognize at the outset that not everybody responds to competition in the same way, and that this is largely driven by personality type. People who have insecurity issues or who lack confidence may be pushed by competition to higher achievement levels.

Corporate Competition

Creating a sense of collective identity where team members identify as part of a brand can create competition with other brands in a similar sector. This is a type of healthy competition that can breed innovation. Challenge is potentially a good thing. Being able to function as a team trying to come out on top of that competition may help create a positive atmosphere, while creating internal competition where you’re surrounded by potential threats may instead create a negative one.

The Impact of Employee Competition

Understanding how people respond to competition will help you understand the place it has in your office. Only about ¼ of people aren’t affected by a competitive environment at all – these people tend to ignore it and just keep working the way they always do. Another ¼ of people actually respond so poorly to competition that they disengage, checking out from their work. It is the remaining half that are motivated by a competitive environment, although it should also be pointed out that men respond more to competitive environments than women do typically.

This sliding scale of responses to competition tells you why you have to be fluid in your desire to instill competitiveness in your work environment. If you’re working with a team that doesn’t work well with overt competition, you can try to find other ways of motivating them, such as goal setting rather than interpersonal competition.

Why is Office Competition Sometimes a Bad Idea?

Leaderboards are a commonly used motivating tool to frame work efforts in the form of a competition, however, they do have their downsides. For people who are new to the company, they will feel at a disadvantage, and it can make their jobs feel difficult and discouraging from the onset. It is also important to realize that on any team, there will always be top performers and those who are more middle of the pack. However, if you’re always pushing people to be in the top, people who feel that goal is impossible may disconnect from their work.

Psychology of Motivation

Motivation has been studied extensively by psychologists, and one thing they have learned is that being motivated internally is more productive than external rewards. You can generate a short term push with a reward or competition, but to build a team that is always driven to perform better no matter the circumstances, you need to find ways to have people motivate themselves. This is what psychologists call “intrinsic” motivation.

Counterintuitively, some research shows that actual rewards for a competition can have a long-term detrimental effect on performance. This underscores the need to rely less on competition, and more on internal motivation.

Doing Office Competition Right

Of course, some people and managers view competition as essential. If you do, there are ways to implement it to make it more effective and less harmful. Make sure that competitions are implemented with a goal in mind, and for set periods of time. This makes them less likely to cause long-term problems than if you have ongoing competition throughout the year.


Another important factor is who you pit against who in a competitive environment. A competition must be fair, and a salesman who has been with the company for twenty years is likely not going to face much competition from a rookie. Have people compete in teams or brackets that allow for genuine competition without a forgone conclusion as to who will be the winner or loser.


Goal Setting at the Office

We mentioned goal setting once before, but it is worth revisiting in terms of how it can be framed as a “competition”. For those who love competition, having staff set goals for themselves is a way to pull in the notion of intrinsic motivation in a competitive environment – the only difference is that each employee competes against their own goal, rather than against a teammate.