How to Stay Competitive Without Letting Comparisons Become a Distraction

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In many ways, leading a business is like coaching a team sport. You’re working with a group of people toward a common goal, but there’s also an element of competition. You’re competing against other teams — companies — and there’s also competition within the team. On some level, everyone is wondering, “Who is the best player on the field?”

For many high-performing professionals, this competition can be a powerful source of motivation. They want to be the best, and they’ll work hard to get there. For others — because, ultimately, we’re all wired differently — it can be a distraction.

As a leader, your challenge is to find the right balance of competition that inspires the best performance from your people as individuals, as a team and as a company without letting it become a distraction.

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A Cookie-Cutter Approach to Motivation Doesn’t Work

As anyone who has led a team or managed other people knows, motivation is a nuanced thing — it’s different for each individual. What works for one person might not work for another. That’s exactly why a cookie-cutter approach to spurring competition within your team can backfire and make your team dynamic worse than when it started.

Imagine for a moment that you have two employees, Susie and Bob. Bob earned a bigger pay raise than Susie this year, but instead of being bitter about it, Susie derived motivation from the competition the situation created. She applied herself to the team’s goals and improved her performance.

Meanwhile, another member of the team, Kate, is not happy at all. She feels like she’s been treated unfairly, and she resents both you — her boss — and Bob for it. Chances are this resentment will damage relationships within the team and Kate’s ability to collaborate. In a worst-case scenario, it might even lead to Kate doing something unethical in an effort to one-up Bob and her other teammates.

In short, you want to be careful about how you wield comparisons. When you emphasize competition within your team, you might unwittingly create rivalries instead of inspiring everyone to reach their full potential. Many people thrive in competitive environments, but it’s not a universal rule.

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Apply Comparisons Strategically

To leverage competition within your team to everyone’s advantage, start by looking at your team members as individuals. Consider how each person has reacted to comparisons in the past. Who gets fired up by competition? Who withdraws? Create a mental list and be prepared to broach the subject of competition with each person differently.

Next, think about how you can tactfully make comparisons without offending people or putting them on the defensive. For example, coming right out and saying, “Hey, you didn’t do as well as them!” likely won’t be a morale booster for anyone. Instead, over time, you want to build a strong culture of support and positive reinforcement. Highlight the positives of competition — like when your team or an individual does well — not the negatives.

You can also emphasize self-comparisons — encouraging your employees to improve and grow as individuals, not only in relation to their colleagues. This includes achievements like learning new skills or beating past personal records in whichever metric you use to measure success. In this way, like a sprinter trying to set a new personal best time for a race, your employees compete against themselves — not each other.

Use Your Own Success to Elevate Others

As you tactfully make comparisons between your team members, be aware that they’re also comparing themselves to you. Fortunately, you can use this to your advantage as a way to motivate them.

To do this, you want to use your own success to elevate those around you. I recently experienced this on the side of the person being elevated, and it felt exhilarating. I had the opportunity to ride my bike with some of the best pro cyclists in the world, including Lance Armstrong. At one point, while riding toward the front of a pack of about a thousand cyclists, one of the pros said to me, “Punit, go out in front!”

So I did, and for about thirty seconds, I had the biggest smile on my face because I was leading the pack with champs like Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie and Bobby Julich right behind me. Thinking back on it, I still feel a huge burst of energy and momentum from having that opportunity. That is the feeling you want to give your team members. Look for chances to use your own success to elevate others. Give them a taste of being a champion, and they’ll want to achieve it for themselves.

Help Your Team Win Together

As a leader, it’s up to you to coach your team to victory. However, keep in mind that you have some flexibility in how you define success. Unlike the sports world, where an athlete’s wins are the sole differentiator between champions and everyone else, each individual on your team can excel in their own way.

Encourage friendly competition between the individuals who thrive on it, and emphasize self-improvement with the ones who don’t. If you find the right balance of competition while tactfully making productive comparisons, you can bring out the best in your people — a win-win for them as individuals and for your company as a whole.

Finally, remember that great leaders don’t hit their peak and stop improving — they use their own success and momentum to bring others up to their level. Turn your personal competitiveness into compassion for your team members, and you can all win together.

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