Before Using Internal Competition to Improve Employee Engagement, You Need to Answer These Questions


A little healthy competition is a good thing — under the right circumstances and with the right people.

In many industries, internal competition has long been used to increase everything from productivity to profits. But what about using competition as part of your employee engagement strategy? Does pitting individual workers against each other really increase engagement across the board?

While there are upsides to to corporate competition, the tactic doesn’t resonate with every employee. Competition can be a powerful motivator for some, but it can cause others to disengage. That’s a problem when you consider that nearly 88 percent of employees already lack passion for their work, according to Deloitte. If you introduce competition to get employees fired up, you may end up driving them away instead.

Before you decide to use internal competition to increase employee engagement, take some time to think through these key questions:

Will You Only Recognize the Winners?

In any competition, there are winners, and then there’s everyone else. Those employees who are putting in the work but aren’t coming in first are just as valuable to your business. If you push internal competition among your employees, it’s crucial to find ways to show every member of your organization they’re valued, regardless of where they land on the leaderboard.

Consider also that the use of competition as an engagement strategy can perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace. Research tells us that the average woman is less likely to consider herself competitive and is less interested in being part of a competition than her male counterparts. Partly, that’s because women are not as convinced that competition actually leads to better performance and outcomes, so they see less of a reason to engage in competition in the first place.

Rather than galvanizing your workforce across the board, strategies that rely on competition may actually alienate a significant portion of your team. That not only sets back your engagement goals, but it can also perpetuate a measurable gender gap in earnings.

Will You Forego Long-Term Results for Short-Term Gains?

Many organizational leaders work hard to foster workplaces where collaboration is a lived value. When you unduly lean on competition as an engagement tactic, you risk creating lasting rifts between your people. Long-term company success requires each employee to believe their contributions matter and to feel like part of a cohesive team pushing toward the same goal.

The long view is especially relevant when it comes to learning and professional development goals. People are motivated to learn because they want to master a subject or because they want to perform well against others. Research shows that mastery-based motivation generates longer-lasting learning outcomes, while performance-based motivation mainly impacts short-term learning. If you aim to incentivize learning through competition, you may end up with workers whose fast-fading skills are only as sharp as the last challenge.

Will You Cause Employees to Leave?

If they’re not winning, your employees might not feel they’re reaping the rewards of their hard work. It can be exhausting to put in the effort and not see the desired outcomes. As we know, employee satisfaction is critical to employee engagement, and happy employees are far less likely to leave their jobs.

One way to ensure your competitions actually contribute to a happier workplace is to develop challenges that focus less on direct competition between employees and more on self-competition. Many employees excel when it comes to benchmarking themselves and building upon past performance.

Skill Development and Recognition Can Increase Engagement

Whether you decide that competition is the right strategy for your company or not, there is a surefire way to connect with all of your employees. Providing opportunities to upskill is one of the most powerful assets in your engagement toolkit. Not only will you demonstrate a commitment to employee growth and development, thereby boosting engagement, but you’ll also take an active role in shaping your workforce with the skills your organization needs now and in the future.

Including digital credentials can be one way to boost the effectiveness of your learning and development initiatives even further. Digital credentials recognize the skills and achievements employees have attained through your training programs, and companies have found that these credentials have a positive impact on engagement. For example, when IBM rolled out a digital badge program, it found that 87 percent of its credential earners felt more engaged and motivated to learn as a result.

And those employees who love a sense of competition will appreciate the chance to rack up as many credentials as they can, showcasing their ongoing pursuit of skills that matter and gaining the confidence that comes from public recognition.

Jonathan Finkelstein is CEO of Credly.

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