Eliminating Unhealthy Employee Competition in the Workplace

CoachHub · 31 August 2023 · 7 min read

Outstanding employees go the extra mile to ensure excellent delivery on their jobs. They often work from a winning perspective and make solid contributions to ensure the achievement of organizational goals. Likewise, employers who are big on organizational success, also ensure to maintain a competitive atmosphere amongst employees that pushes them to give their best. However, it’s not unusual to see competitiveness in the workplace taken too far. What started out with great intent could unfortunately spiral into unhealthy competition in the workplace. The once-positive results could eventually lead to an unending loop of negatives.

In this guide, we look into—the difference between healthy and unhealthy competition, why unhealthy employee competition is unsafe and how organizations can ensure that the competition between employees stays healthy.

Healthy competition vs unhealthy competition in the workplace

To understand what unhealthy competition is, there’s a need to define what is healthy competition. Healthy competition describes the positive drive to give one’s best on the job while being motivated by the collective drive of other employees to also give their best. It involves seeing work outcomes as an ultimate organizational win, a team win and least of all a personal win.

Unhealthy competition however reverses this order. A case of unhealthy competition describes the exerted efforts of an employee to outperform other employees, no matter what it takes. It’s a cut-throat attitude that doesn’t put organizational and team win into perspective, but focuses solely on personal win.

Employers have used different methods to bolster workplace competition by incentivizing peak performance, using certain KPIs to award titles such as, ‘employee of the month’ or ‘department of the month’ and giving special performance bonuses. While these can yield significant results, if not managed carefully, may turn out to influence unhealthy competition and workplace toxicity.

unhealthy employee competition

Why unhealthy employee competition is unsafe

Although many employees are often the direct victims of unhealthy competition before it snowballs into the overall work culture, they may be drawn deep into it before they realize the damage. The natural drive to be seen, known, and appreciated—the need to be relevant—is often responsible for this. Words like ‘best in’ and ‘most outstanding’ can quickly become the most important goal of each employee while they lose sight of the actual organizational goal they’re supposed to be pursuing.

When these become the focus, it turns out to be unsafe for the work culture in many ways.

Increased stress levels

In a fast-paced work environment, the hallmark for achieving success may be an 8/10, but highly competitive employees exert themselves to achieve a 10/10 within the same time frame. They plunge themselves into a demanding work routine in a bid to attain the highest possible score. This then spirals into increased stress levels and work-related anxiety over time. Because they’re gunning for something they consider worth giving all it takes, they may also sacrifice critical things like rest and personal time that could have helped them to function effectively and optimally. Some may also suffer stress-induced burnout, as a result.

Loss of morale

When some other employees see how exhausting it is to achieve being the top performer, they may lose morale and give in to doing only the barest minimum. They may also find it frustrating that no one is paying attention to their effort because someone else is going all the way to get the management’s attention while their own effort goes unnoticed. Seeing their effort pale when compared to those of highly competitive employees can make them feel disengaged on the job and lose the morale to give their best or even show up at work.

Kills the team spirit among employees

When everyone is pursuing individual wins, it kills the team spirit among employees. You’re likely to see a set of high-performers do significantly well on individual tasks and turn in subpar work when collaborating together in a group, because they prefer individual reward and attention. Additionally, there could be an unhealthy dependence on high performers to do most of the work. Others may decide to coast along while letting others do the job because they are satisfied with getting paid for doing only a fraction of what’s required of them.

Blindsiding the creativity of others

Another critical problem with an extremely competitive workplace is that it blindsides the creativity that others put into their jobs while focusing solely on outcomes. It neglects the unique inputs of each employee into their work, to celebrate some competitive employees who are only going all the way for selfish reasons.

Hoarding important information

In a bid to be perceived as the best 1% among the employees, some go as far as hoarding valuable information that could be relevant to the work of others, or everyone’s contribution as a team. Rather than share, they would prefer to use the information to boost their personal performance and to project an air of superiority over their colleagues.

Toxic workplace culture

As competitiveness compounds, the workplace even becomes more toxic for employees. They soon begin to resent each other and will do anything to get another competing employee out of their way. Some may attempt to do things to sabotage other employee’s chances, others may break down health-wise due to the stress of the toxic atmosphere. Eventually, the ones who can’t take it anymore leave, putting the organization in an unexpected search for new employees.

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Unhealthy employee competition in the workplace—How to prevent or deal with it

If your employees are reeling from the effect of toxic competition, it’s never too late to remedy it. Also, the best time to sensitize your employees to toxic competitiveness is before it happens. So, whether you’re seeking to prevent or deal with unhealthy employee competition, the following steps will help.

Prioritize rewarding personal contributions to team success

Competition isn’t the problem but unhealthy competition is. To keep it healthy, employees are encouraged to give their best to team success rather than individual success when they are rewarded based on that. When employees understand that no individual success is reckoned above team success, they are geared to work together and give their best to it.

It also eliminates the chances that a team member would hoard relevant information that could contribute to team success. This means that structures that link take-homes and incentives to individual ranking and performance must be abandoned for more team-focused ones.

Invest in organizational coaching

When employees and managers are enrolled for coaching, the coaches work with them to unpack the current position they are in and work with them to become better employees. For instance, if your employees already suffer from unhealthy competitiveness, coaching can help them redirect their focus. They get to see how their job isn’t tied to their self-worth and how prioritizing team wins over personal wins is still a win-win for everyone.

On the other hand, coaching can help organizations prevent unhealthy competition by helping employees understand their individual power to achieve collective results, rather than prioritizing personal gain. A deep sense of self-worth helps them see other employees as tag team members rather than enemies.

Re-evaluate performance metrics

In a case of toxic workplace competition, it’s easy to have a culture of winners and losers, where some see themselves as winners and others see themselves as losers. The existing performance metrics are often responsible for this. With employees feeling less of themselves a lot is already at stake. To prevent or deal with this, workplace leaders must re-align their performance metrics to accommodate occasional shortcomings. Since it’s not possible to hit 100% of a set target all the time, adjusting metrics to 70% and above for instance, will put less competitive pressure on employees working to attain that goal.

Discourage and enforce sanctions on sabotaging behavior

When employees know that there are sanctions in place for talking down or trying to sabotage other people’s work, they’re not likely to engage in such behavior. There are different scenarios in a work setting when a competitive employee could behave unethically to earn personal rewards. Encourage employees to speak up about such behavior and not ignore them, and ensure the appropriate sanctions are enforced to discourage such behavior.

Prioritize a culture of mutual respect

When employees have mutual respect for one another, it’s unlikely to see them engage in cut-throat competitiveness. Everyone understands the critical roles they all play to achieve organizational success, hence they value the input of others and respect their contributions.

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Final Words

Your employees are part of your biggest organizational assets, and you must prioritize them at all costs. While it’s important that employees give their best, organizations must enforce a culture that prioritizes the mental and emotional well-being of every employee while they’re at it. Coaching remains a significant approach to preventing and dealing with unhealthy employee competition.

Samuel Olawole

Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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