When your colleagues are also your rivals

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Tit is modern The company exalts both competition and cooperation. Competition is the defining characteristic of markets; Within organizations too, employees compete for limited resources. Sometimes this competition is obvious, such as when performances are openly ranked or there is a race for a specific job. Sometimes it goes unspoken: there is only a limited amount of money available and a limited number of promotional opportunities offered. Regardless, the competition is still there.

However, the purpose of companies is to coordinate the activities of many actors in the pursuit of common objectives. Departments and teams are expected to work together. Collaborative behavior is generally celebrated. Companies give out rewards to the most helpful co-workers, not the Macbeth Prize to the co-worker most likely to murder you in your sleep.

Rivalry and teamwork can go hand in hand. A 2022 paper by Eric VanEpps of the University of Utah, Einav Hart of George Mason University, and Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania examined the best way to solve an old riddle. To make a good impression on superiors, you need to highlight your own accomplishments. But bragging about how great you are is not a recipe for being liked. A strategy of taking credit for some things and praising colleagues for others solved this problem.

It's not easy for managers to find the right balance between encouraging competition and collaboration. (Just hear the word “coopetition” to understand how ugly things can get.) Competition can incentivize more effort, but it can also have unintended consequences.

A recent study by Eddy Cardinaels of Tilburg University and Christoph Feichter of the Vienna University of Economics and Business asked supervisors to use a forced performance ranking system to rate workers' creativity. Forced rankings force managers to assign employees to given places on a scale: if there are ten workers, for example, then one must come in first and another must come in tenth. This approach only stressed everyone out – a bit like yelling “relax” in someone’s face. People tried harder, but they also became less creative.

In a review of the literature published in 2020, Gavin Kilduff of New York University's Stern School of Business, Blythe Rosikiewicz of West Chester University, and Christopher To of Rutgers University concluded that competition is more likely to backfire when people feel threatened: for example, when the costs of losing are high or when people are competing against others known to be better at the task in question. But even when the stakes are low, explicit competition can backfire.

In an experiment conducted by Jeffrey Carpenter of Middlebury College and his co-authors in 2007, participants were asked to fill envelopes. When people received a bonus for filling the most envelopes, they worked harder than if they received a flat fee per envelope. But when they were also given the opportunity to sabotage their peers to get ahead, the expectation (rightly) that they themselves would be sabotaged led people to work less hard than if they had been paid by the hour. piece.

Such behavior occurs because many people – and among them many men, since women tend to be less attracted to the prospect of all-out competition – enjoy winning for the fun of it. This organic aspect of competition also manifests itself in rivalries between individuals. Workers naturally tend to compare themselves to their peers in the race for status and seniority; They don't need an excuse.

These specific rivalries can be particularly motivating. A 2018 paper by Adam Galinsky and Brian Pike of Columbia Business School and M. Kilduff found that teams in various American sports performed better the year after an intense rival did well in tournaments. In another study, Lisa Ordóñez of the University of Arizona and MM. Kilduff, Schweitzer and To analyzed American football games and found that teams were more likely to make risky decisions on the field against fierce rivals. Specific opponents encourage greater risk-taking than generic competition, at least if you're a very big man in tights.

All this argues in favor of a moderate approach to encouraging competition. Balance individual incentives with group incentives. If you want to evaluate performance, make sure the measurements are clear, objective and fair. Think about when taking risk is more desirable (sales, for example) and less desirable (clinical trials). By their nature, organizations crackle with competitiveness. Adding a little fuel to the fire can be a good thing. There is no need to spray gasoline everywhere.

Read more from Bartleby, our management and work columnist:
The CEO's message for the new year (January 1)
The return of the dying uncle from The Economist (December 20)
How to Master the Art of Delegation (December 14)

Also: How Bartleby Column got its name

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