Competition: What I Learned From You

Originally published at on January 26, 2016

This past January, we published Leaders Redraw the Map of Competition. In this article I posited that we should eliminate all competition internally and in effect save that competitiveness for outside the organization and our competitors in the market place. I asked for your opinion and today I’d like to include that feedback and see how it shapes this approach. Very grateful for the feedback and I learned some things. Hope you do too.

If you haven’t already please read the previous post.

The point I made:

Competition should not happen within the organization. Competition should be focused on true competitors outside the organization.

As a competitive person I like the idea of things like contests and games internally though my experience is that the downsides outweigh any benefit.

Some of you believe competition has a place within an organization:

Great piece, Jim. Everyone likes to be on a winning team. There is no win if there is no competition. Inside, outside or competing against ourselves, competition fuels results. — Chip Lutz
Bold idea. I wouldn’t want to eliminate internal competition, perhaps redefine so it’s healthy. Competition can breed great ideas! — Amy Franko
I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Why not both? Even when I’m bouncing around ideas with a friend, there is an effort to “one-up” each idea. Yes, there is a competition between us as individuals to come up with ever-increasing better ideas, but we succeed as a team in that our competition results in a better idea in the end for the very reason we were challenging each other to do better. — Don The Idea Guy Holliday

Some people agreed that internal competition should be avoided:

My thinking has always been “cooperation internally,” and “fierce competition externally.” It’s a fact of nature that the more selfish you are individually, the more successful you are within a group. But the more cooperative a group, the more they succeed and win. — Anthony Iannarino
The message is spot on focusing on the real competitor versus internal competition. My experience is that it boils down to metrics. When the sales and marketing team get measured and paid on the same metrics, they focus on playing as a team. Same when you dock the sales team for returned product (many companies pay on revenue and sales doesn’t get held accountable for long payment terms, returned product, etc… Yet the business is less profitable). I believe it all boils down to leadership aligning the metrics and the goals and objectives set at the beginning of the year and tying it to their cash comp. — Tanya Fratto
I fall on the side of getting rid of competition inside organizations–today’s global economy requires it like never before! The structures in organizations contribute to the competition…so without changing structures, competition will be hard to get rid of or minimize. Hierarchy encourages competition, silos encourage it and so do job descriptions. A job description, for example, encourages me to “do my job”–whatever is within those boundaries, as opposed to aligning my work so that it coordinates and fits snugly with the people to whom I ‘hand off’ my work. And my job is usually judged via an annual performance review. And that is often connected to a salary increase, encouraging competition because often the “pot” is finite, and if you get a “5” then I (or someone) has to get a “2” to make the numbers work. — Janine Moon

Some of you aren’t sure about some of my assumptions like being competitive is human nature.

There is an underlying premise here that “everyone likes competition” with a few exceptions. While I’m glad you acknowledged that there are exceptions, I think you’ve underestimated how large that pool is. I imagine, for those who do love competition, this is a great way to get them closer to having a cooperative culture within the organization (creating one team) because the competition is external. I think it may be helpful to include a preface here that gears this towards folks who are competitive by nature. — Brett Morgan
Jim, this is a cultural issue that does not exist in all organizations. For instance, there are many non-profits who do not have these issues because everyone has a common vision and that supersedes any/all personal goals. To “fix” this issue, leaders have to establish a culture that focuses on the vision and always keep people looking and working towards the common goal. “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast” and this is a great example of why. — Perry Maughmer

OK, I’ll admit that there is a percentage of the population that isn’t competitive, don’t like the act of competing and would rather there not be a winner or a loser. This is important because I do maintain that a good number of leaders do lean toward the competitive. These leaders need to avoid the blind spot that everyone is like them.

Is internal competition a problem?:

I often see successful people who “over compete” internally. — Maureen Metcalf
One of my favorite examples is the “pricing procedure” years ago within a company division. Our manufacturing plant produced product at a certain cost, than “sold” to the the Sales Group based upon an internal pricing program (no cash involved, just an internal paper transfer to the Sales Group at a price higher than cost). The Sales Group then sold to independent dealers across the country. Some of the biggest arguments (and very strong feelings) came from the internal pricing program. The total gross profit to the company was always the same, but I remember the “nasty negotiations” between manufacturing and sales, yet it was all on paper. To make it worse, year-end bonuses for management in both manufacturing and sales were partially based upon the “internal profit breakdown.” This was a system set-up to actually encourage internal competition. Maybe this was part of the reason why the industry leaders each had about 33% of the market, and this company barely had 10%. — Jack Park

I’ve created contests around learning, especially when newly changed behavior is being introduced and it met the intended goals — get people involved, motivate people to try new things, and provide rewards. What long-term affects did this competition have?

Yes, internal competition exists and it can be devastating to results. I have seen serious structural problems like Jack noted as well as an underlying locker room like competitiveness with the corresponding bullying, internal fighting, dampening innovation, and negative atmosphere. It’s difficult to make positive changes in this type of environment.

Tapping into competition may be a lazy way to get things done. As some pointed out it can be useful. So, conscious thought when inserting internal competition is the key. Think through the ramifications. It’s not trivial. We need to examine the overall system (org structure, hiring, metrics, compensation, culture, etc.).

We need to explore beyond this simple tactic to bigger leadership approaches. I wrote the original post because I so often see the internal competition getting in the way of The New Leadership Normal that we bring to organizations like yours.

I don’t believe that the current state of leadership — focused on internal competition — is “human nature.” Rather, it is the current state of habitual thinking. A thoughtful, purposeful and intentional leader can create a team environment — with multiple teams — without competitive thinking. — Jeff Nischwitz

Jeff captures my thinking well. We need to work on our structure and our mindset about competition. As leaders, with conscious effort we in fact can redraw the map.

I edited the comments so please go to the original post and check out the back and forth. There’s some great stuff there.

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