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Workplace Competition: From Healthy Conflict to Innovation

Healthy conflict and competition within a team can be a motivating force, or it can cause conflicts that tear groups apart. The competitive desire to succeed and win can drive some to cheat. We accept competition for recognition, for awards, for pay increases as normal business. We might even enjoy rivalries in sports or with our business competitors.

“Some research studies suggest such competition can motivate employees, make them put in more effort, and achieve results. Indeed, competition increases physiological and psychological activation, which prepares body and mind for increased effort and enables higher performance” states the authors of  The Pros and Cons of Competition Among Employees in the Harvard Business Review.

So how do successful teams turn competition into innovation and not unethical, cut-throat practices?

Start with the right team:
Building complementary teams of people can be the best way to prevent conflict before it even begins. Assessments can help identify and evaluate team dynamics, strengths, and areas for development. Managers can onboard new team members with some insight into where unhealthy conflicts might easily arise from simple misunderstandings or priorities.

Celebrate differences:
Diversity is not just a feel-good cliché of the modern era. It can actually be a way to boost individual confidence and encourage collaboration. When employees see how they differ from each other, they will see less friction in their collaborative efforts. Diverse perspectives create more and often better problem-solving opportunities.

Share the same goal:
Building a team with the right chemistry is ideal, but the priority should be building a team with the same goal. Communicate goals clearly and regularly so the team knows what they’re working toward. Competition with a clear understanding of the rules and what will constitute a win can keep the emphasis on innovation. With an eye on the final goal, team members will be less likely to get caught up in short term disputes.

Capitalize on individual strengths:
Effective teams know how to turn the success of individuals into a successful group effort. Maintaining a healthy dose of competition keeps a project from stagnating. Inevitably, somebody will come up with a better idea or get the work done before somebody else. Channel these individual successes into a drive for more success. Team members with the right skills will see how their individual strengths can improve upon another team member’s idea. Managers need to find ways to reward the team for a success and not just an individual contributor.

Create psychological safety:
Misbehavior is more likely when someone feels fear or anxiety. Conflict is important and inevitable. Welcome conflict in the group in a way all members can understand and accept. Teams and their managers need to discuss what healthy competition and conflict looks like. Team members need to discuss how they will challenge each other’s assumptions, behaviors and ideas to ensure the team continues to be productive.

When discussing conflict, place the focus on creativity and bigger wins. People respond negatively to a fear of loss. For example, telling a team they’ll get a day off if they meet their deadline is motivating. Telling a team they’ll lose a day off if they miss their deadline arouses anxiety. The final outcome might be the same, but how it is presented matters.

Establish team checkpoints:
Measuring progress along the way gives value to the original goal. This helps the team continue to share the same goal and renew their focus. It also allows for re-evaluation of goals if necessary. Checkpoints also give team members a chance to voice their concerns throughout the project. Keep in mind these are team checkpoints, not individual progress reports.

Strong teams are made up of diverse individuals with specific roles but the same goal. They recognize that each member has a purpose, and are aware that they could not accomplish the task as well on their own.

There is help for managers
Managers and team leaders can encourage healthy conflict that leads to innovation. There are several tools to help. When assembling a team, build balance and reduce personality conflict by discussing everyone’s personalities and priorities through a tool like Everything DiSC Workplace. For more established teams, consider an assessment like The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team to discuss issues like trust, conflict, and accountability. If a team member or two are struggling, coach them with the help of Everything DiSC Productive Conflict.

Investing in a team’s experience of conflict as something healthy and welcome because it’s creative and energizing can lead a team towards positive results. Plus it’ll be a team that others will want to join or emulate.

Originally published on Workplace 101 by Aoife Gorey. Edited and republished by Kristeen Bullwinkle.