Good Boss, Bad Boss — The Two Sides of Competitive Psychology
We all are to a more or lesser degree competitive. If you want to win, being competitive is what motivates you to reach that goal. And both in research and product development, competition is what drives progress.
But when you are hyper-competitive, you may well end up pushing people away, creating a negative work environment, and come off as a selfish and insensitive narcissist.
There is a fine line between healthy competition and a damaging mindset that causes more harm than good. If you are in a position of responsibility, with a team relying on your guidance, then it’s crucial that you don’t let your own competitiveness get in your way.
And as the team leader, it’s your job to control and adjust the competition within your team. Only then can all members develop their true potential and drive your project forward.
The difference between competitiveness and hyper-competitiveness
Some people perceive competitiveness as something negative. But it’s not competitiveness that’s harmful. The damaging factor is the extreme type of competitiveness, also known as hyper-competitiveness. What’s the difference?
Competitiveness is the drive to reach a goal, not only on your own but together with everyone on your team. A competitive leader motivates his team, recognizes individual talents and affinities, and tries to implement their individual skills in the best possible way to achieve success.
A hyper-competitive leader on the other hand merely uses his team as an asset to reach his personal goal of victory. If someone in the team does not meet this leader’s expectations, the leader gets frustrated, seeing his own chance of success dwindle.
While the competitive team leader focuses on bringing out the best in people, the hyper-competitive leader is ego-driven and reacts more emotionally to setbacks. He is quick to voice blame and dissatisfaction.
The impact of these two approaches
Both team leaders want to win. But they have different approaches. The competitive leader uses his team spirit and ambition for self-improvement. He uses motivational incentives to acknowledge and reward those who support him. But he won’t let those who lack the skills or consistency fall behind either.
His team will often follow and perceive a steady overall growth in their own abilities and ambition over time. They develop a similar, interrelationship-competition.
The second leader doesn’t put much energy into his team apart from the necessary orders and instructions. In his eyes, the team is there to ensure his success. And if something goes wrong, he won’t take any responsibility either. He doesn’t convey a clear goal or plan.
Because of that, his team will struggle to work towards a united goal. It will be indecisive and in disarray. Members will start sabotaging each other in order to secure their own positions. They will copy and adopt the leader’s hyper-competitiveness within the group. This drags down workplace harmony.
If you focus on providing a work environment in which competition is motivating and fair, you can avoid all these problems and unhealthy responses.
6 Ways to inspire and encourage positive and healthy competition
In order for you as a leader to encourage a positive level of competition within your team, you have to approach your team with the right mindset and offer the right incentives.
1. Recognize their contributions
Acknowledging their skills and giving them recognition for their contributions— however small — has positive effects on their morale and their own expectations.
They will feel validated. If their performance has been good, it will become great. And if they have been lacking behind a bit, they will now want to live up to the expectations, knowing that they aren’t invisible.
Those whose performance was subpar will also notice the recognition the other members receive. This will strike their ego and motivate them into doing better themselves, too.
2. Create personal interest
Not always do all members of a team share the same motivation and goals. You will have to create individual goals that align with the overall goal and are relatable for the team members.
If you finish your project in time, not everyone will directly benefit from it. This is a lack of personal interest. However, if you can incorporate your team members’ personal goals into the equation, they will have their own reasons to strive for success.
This can range from going out for dinner with the whole team after the goal has been reached, to individual gratitude packages, up to financial incentives.
In Japan, for example, going out with supervisors and coworkers is a common occurrence. Many companies regularly visit Izakayas in groups, just to celebrate successful work weeks and to help relieve the stress of past projects as a team.
This does not only help team members bond on a human level but also creates a strong feeling of togetherness, even in otherwise highly competitive work environments.
3. Identify your best team members early on
As mentioned in the beginning, we all have different levels of competitiveness. And in the same way, we all have different skills and capabilities.
When your project is underway, you will soon identify certain team members as your workhorses. They generally are responsible for up to 90% of your overall success. It is important that you know who these people are.
You can then either put them together with those who show lower performance, so these people can learn from them. Or you can analyze their characteristics to identify why exactly they outperform their peers and incorporate this in a team-wide training course.
Maybe they’d even be willing to help you in setting up such a course. This would be perceived as an additional recognition of their skills.
4. Deal with setbacks in the right way
Things don’t always go as planned. Failing a task is frustrating enough. But if a project fails because someone else screwed up, people can become quite toxic.
You need to deal with these setbacks like a leader. Do not blame individual members in front of the whole team.
It is important to learn from past mistakes, but pointing fingers at anyone will only damage interpersonal relationships.
The best way is to open up a team-wide meeting and let every member voice their opinion on what went wrong and why. If the relationship between members is good, they too will try to avoid blaming anyone specific. And this is good.
Instead of blaming someone for a screw-up, you should try to offer constructive criticism and approach the situation with a sense of empathy.
Offer to help and support the failed individual more next time. You don’t need to babysit them, but you should ensure that no one is overwhelmed by their respective responsibilities.
5. Watch out for hyper-competition
You will have to actively counter hyper-competition, both within yourself and within your team. A too competitive work environment can quickly become a bad place to be in and will increase the risk of burnout for all members involved.
Remember that nobody likes to lose, no matter how competitive or indifferent they are.
It’s important to support and encourage teamwork wherever you can. This also includes yourself. Do not only delegate less impactful work to your team members. For them to feel validated, you have to give them meaningful responsibilities.
Let your team know that you are willing to assist and talk to them about concerns, problems, and suggestions they might have.
6. Confront conflict within your team head-on
Creating a high-functioning team in which everyone respects and accepts the other is often not possible, despite our best efforts. The more people you have, the higher the chance that conflicts will arise between some of them.
And as a leader, it is your job to deal with conflict and help mediate between individuals. If you don’t act in time, your workplace may become the battleground for a cold war. This will compromise your team’s performance and may even hurt your reputation as a reliable leader.
When you deal with the conflict between team members, you must under all circumstances stay neutral.
You have to find a middle ground for both parties in order to keep things fair. You should then encourage them to work on their interpersonal relationship in a positive and healthy way. Point out the importance of teamwork. You all are in the same boat.
Use your position and expertise to improve their relationship and help solve any conflict in a way that benefits the team as a whole.
A good leader does not only lead by example. He leads with compassion.
Competition is important if you want to get things done. But it can make or break your operation. Too high levels of competitiveness can lead to conflict, reduced performance, and ultimately failure.
Keep the competition within your team on a healthy level and set the right incentives to motivate and encourage everyone.
This will keep your team together, minimize tension between members, help to solve problems more effectively and improve the work environment.
If you want to be a good leader, don’t push. Pull.