Competition is unquestionably important and healthy when striving for success. When we have rivals to compare ourselves to it forces us to stay focused, push for progress and seek out innovations. Think of Microsoft vs Apple, McDonald’s vs Burger King or Coca Cola vs Pepsi. Attempting to learn from, adapt to, and surpass the competition has had a huge impact on the positioning, products and strategy of these organisations over the years.

However, poorly managed internal competition between colleagues can have far more destructive consequences. The adversity you face shouldn’t come from inside your own company.

In today’s fast-paced world, there’s enough rivals to contend with in the marketplace, without battling toxic in-fighting. Therefore, the only way to effectively compete in the market is to have an organisation united behind a vision and culture that’s bigger than any one individual or team.

While some level of internal competition is inescapable (and in the right circumstances, with healthy motives it can be highly productive), it is essential to create a team dynamic that promotes and rewards collaboration and a ‘we before me’ culture to achieve innovation and performance improvements.

How does negative internal competition manifest itself?

An organisation’s culture is defined by the unwritten rules that govern day-to-day behaviour. Therefore, typically culture change is a slow progression (or regression) as a result of various decisions and actions, or indecision and inaction.

There are five crucial ‘R’ factors which will create internal competition that is negatively impacting your organisation’s performance: recruitment, risk, responsibility, recognition and rewards. Each of these factors has a disproportionate impact on culture change relative to day-to-day behaviour:

Recruitment – This links back to the earlier point about vision and culture. Have you ever recruited someone who, on paper, seemed right for your organisation but due to their attitude or behaviour had a negative influence during their time with you? One wrong hire can have a huge impact on the culture of the team. Adam Grant, an Organisational Psychologist and TED speaker, talks about the different habits of givers and takers and the cultural impact that just one ‘taker’ can have on a team of givers – they can destroy collaboration. So, you must be confident that your new recruit fits into your collaborative culture.

Risk – When a new opportunity is identified, how does the organisation react? This might be a new strategic direction, new technological innovation or customer requirement that takes employees or teams out of their comfort zone. Does your organisation put the project team in competition with existing teams, perhaps for funding and resources? Are those involved isolated and left to sink or swim? There is always an element of risk attached to embracing new opportunities, but it is important not to increase the risk by creating intense internal competition and expectation regarding its success or failure.

Responsibility – Mistakes are inevitable. How you respond to them exemplifies the culture of the organisation. Do people own them or hide them? How do management respond to issues? The lag time between an issue arising and responding to it will tell you everything you need to know about your culture. When people hide mistakes or appear to be unaccountable in the eyes of others, this leads to resentment and may create a ‘them and us’ divide.

Recognition – Who typically receives the most recognition in your organisation? Which behaviours are celebrated? Typically, it’s the ‘stars’. The people who take centre stage because their contributions are the most tangible e.g. sales people bringing in customers and revenue. However, recognising individuals often overlooks the contributions of others and a wider team; leading to resentment and apathy. In a culture where recognition is promoted on an individual level, it also encourages self-promotion, silos and stealing credit from others to get noticed. For example, does your appraisal system encourage people to talk only about their personal achievements or discuss their contributions to team accomplishments?

Rewards – You have to reward the behaviours you want to see. If you want to promote a culture of collaboration, then your reward schemes and motivating factors must support this. Yet, most organisation’s extrinsic motivators - KPI’s and commission structures - are based on individual performance; therefore, supporting internal competition. You’re relying on the good nature of your employees to behave collaboratively, even when they know it will hurt their own earning potential or career progression.

To continue with part 2 of the blog, focusing on the implications of negative internal competition and how it impacts on the team development programmes we deliver for customers, please click here.

Grahame Robb | Joe Mackintosh | Matthew Campbell

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GRA has 29 years of experience designing and delivering team development programmes. If you'd like to learn more about how we support teams, please look through the 'who we support' tab for more information or contact us via the form below and a member of our team would be happy to discuss this further with you. Alternatively, you can call us on 01962 779911 or email

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