Competition is healthy because it's human nature to want to be the winner. Competition is the incentive to work harder - or smarter, and to come out ahead of the other competitors.
That's useful in many areas of life. For example, in schools it drives the serious students to study a little harder, and in business it helps drive prices down and improve service.
When team work is needed, then competition between team members is almost always destructive.
This is true for families; a guaranteed recipe for a disastrous marriage is to have husband and wife compete with one another instead of working together as a team.
In the workplace, the same applies. It's counterproductive when employees see each other as people to compete against. I've worked at many places, and the less internal competition, the more efficient the business will be and more fun it is to work there.
People who are having fun at work are happy to come to work every day and to do a full day's work.
Teams members who are not in competition with each other are happy to help each other. They also have no issues about constructively criticizing each other's work and ideas. This dramatically improves throughput.
When team members compete with each other they may hide information from each other, which wastes huge amounts of time. In extreme cases they may sabotage one another's efforts. That's already destructive behavior and the business is sure to suffer.
Many things contribute to the internal competitive attitude.
Management is where it all starts. If managers compete with each other, that sets the tone company-wide.
If management creates a huge structure where everybody needs a title - and titles become important - then people will start competing with each other for the titles.
Management should channel the competitive urge towards the real competition: external competitors and potential competitors.
Project managers can help, too. The internal competition should be "everybody" against the "deadline". Pretend that the enemy is the deadline or the amount of open bugs, and create an atmosphere of "we will work as a team against the deadline".
Very often two brains are better then one; 2 sets of eyes are better then one, and having people work in ad-hoc teams doing pair-programming can achieve amazing results. If somebody always has to get the credit, then nobody will want to share.
For this reason it's best not to single out employees as "winners" or "employees of the month" unless they have done something extraordinary. It's best to cheer on the entire team as a unit; they'll gladly all go out together for a meal or a day in the sun - and this will reinforce the team spirit.
Another team-spirit killer is individual goals. People will do everything and anything to meet their personal goals, even at the expense of killing a bigger goal, like a team goal. Team-wide goals are fine as long as they do not create friction between teams.
Even between teams, you do not want unnecessary competition. QA and Engineering should be working together to create the bug-free product. Pitting one against the other achieves nothing. It's most productive when the testers and programmers can sit together; one showing how it can be broken and the other trying to fix it.
So what do you do if you absolutely feel that somebody deserves extra recognition? For example, somebody cleaned the kitchen-area and made it kosher-for-Passover?
The best thing to do is to tell them privately how much you appreciate going the extra mile. You could give them a gift certificate without any fan fare. In a healthy non-competitive environment, they will appreciate the privacy as well as the recognition.
Even when punishment is needed, or a post mortem is called for, it needs to be done at the team-level. More about that in a future post.
- Danny Schoemann