Practice vs. Game-time: When Competition in the Workplace Can Be Damaging

By: Rachel Mendelowitz, Partner at McChrystal Group

American businesses love a good sports metaphor, and there is nothing more basic about sports than the understanding of practice vs. game-time. At practice, we are free to try new moves and experiment with different plays, all in the name of improving our craft. A less competitive environment leaves us free to learn and grow with the support of our coach and the rest of our team. Practice is perhaps the most important work we do, even though--and perhaps because--it doesn’t count on our win/loss record. On game day, we know results count; the external competition (in the form of the opposing team) applies serious pressure. That’s not the time for experimentation. Rather, it is a time to execute.

To a certain extent, this sports analogy works in the business world as well— we compete against external “players” in our space, trying to land that contract or win over that major prospect, increasing our market share. Leaders encourage their employees to excel in this arena, honing their competitive edge and rewarding success in hopes of motivating performance.

But just like in sports, “practice” in the business world is crucial to team and individual growth, learning, and success. While “stretch” opportunities or unconventional strategies may result in the occasional failure, they inevitably provide valuable lessons that forge a better, more adaptable workforce.

But in business, it’s not so clear when you are practicing and when it’s game-time. The sports analogy falls flat when we recognize that our employees are practicing in front of their internal competitors (often peers or colleagues) and internal judges (management, especially when it comes to matters such as promotions or bonuses). This is where a fear of failure starts to kick in . Taking risks and trying new things, in essence “practice,” seems both unwise and unsafe.

As I wrote in a previous article, an environment of psychological safety is critical to drawing the best performance out of teams and individuals. While athletes practice to get ready for the game, employees are facing competition on all fronts. Without a respite from competing, it’s game-time, all the time. Preparing for the external arena is actually the “game” in the internal arena— which leaves no space for learning.

While competition may be a motivating force in the external environment, it can be pretty damaging internally. It’s a serious barrier to enterprise learning, which is crucial for innovation and success. In order to truly build high-performing organizations, leaders need to acknowledge the reality of internal competition and its negative effects on performance and team dynamics.

Internal competition is often ignored in the context of individual and team development. It’s easy to see why: a subset of people navigate this tension well, and even thrive on it. But it is, by design, not equitable throughout the workforce. Some individuals in your organization are getting opportunities to learn, but others aren't, and as a result, are underperforming (not to mention adding to a culture of mistrust and fear).

So the real question is: how do we as leaders develop our entire workforce in the face of internal competition?

Here are some tips for leaders trying to thread this needle:

  1. Be sensitive about transparency – As leaders, we all know that transparency is important, but we have to be sure that we are handling transparent conversations and feedback in the right way. Be considerate about giving feedback in private versus in public. Complimenting a job well done in public, preferably across multiple functions, is critical to boosting morale and building those bonds of trust that ultimately create a “safe” environment, but try to do it at the team level. This way, you avoid the appearance of favoritism that can drive competition between members. Similarly, corrections at the individual level should be made in private, allowing individuals to gain feedback on their mistakes without having to consider the reactions of their peers. Trust is the bedrock to the manager-employee relationship, but it’s also critical to the overall team dynamic.
  2. Remember that it’s not just a “junior” problem— While many may associate fear of failure or a sense of vulnerability with more junior employees, senior leaders are also missing out on opportunities to “practice.” As an executive or manager, everything you say is scrutinized; you have to be always-on, always polished, or risk having your every move misconstrued, creating a ripple effect across the organization. (General McChrystal has previously spoken about the pressures of having your leadership behavior always on display). It’s hard to practice the “softer” skills that are required in leadership roles, but it’s absolutely critical for leaders moving into higher levels to develop these skills if they are going to be effective in their new positions. When side conversations about senior leaders spring up, rather than take part in the critique, support them by helping others interpret senior leader intent and encourage people to go directly to senior leaders with follow up questions. This will humanize the leaders in your organization and allow them several more iterations on their message – an opportunity for additional practice.
  3. Consider involving a third-party – Whether it’s someone within your organization but outside of the team dynamic, or a consultancy to “coach” your organization, a third-party can be very valuable when it comes to handling internal competition. If you’re missing that trusting dynamic within your team, supplement it with a third-party perspective. Advice and feedback will be more neutral, and less likely to be another driver of internal competition. Third-party led workshops and training sessions can give your employees the space to practice that they so desperately need, giving them the tools to mitigate the effects of internal competition when they are back out in the “arena.”

In a business environment, even though “practice” is no less important, the “game” never stops. But if we really want people to learn from past experiences and inevitable failures, we as leaders have to acknowledge the reality of internal competition and take the necessary steps to manage it accordingly— or risk losing the game altogether.

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