As a former professional athlete and someone who has worked in and with sales organizations for the past 25 years, I know a few things about positive competition and negative competition.
As a leadership consultant and executive coach, I’ve seen competition play out in both healthy and unhealthy ways within teams and companies for many years.
Some studies state that competition can motivate employees, resulting in better results. It can also increase effort, which leads to higher performance.
On the other hand, negative competition can elicit a sense of fear in employees, who can feel threatened or pressured in unhealthy ways. Fear can cause severe anxiety in the workplace.
Competition is part of life, and especially of business. You can constructively harness competition in a productive way for teams, but it can also be incredibly damaging and detrimental to a team or company’s culture.
So, it’s essential to understand that there are two types of competition: negative and positive competition.
What Are the Differences Between Positive Competition and Negative Competition?
Negative competition occurs when we compete with others so that we want to win at the expense of the other person or people involved.
In other words, our success is predicated on their failure. Negative competition is a zero-sum game and is based on the adolescent notion that if we win, we’re “good,” and if we lose, we’re “bad.”
The main difference between negative and positive competition is the types of emotions people feel surrounding the competition. These emotions can make certain kinds of people behave very differently.
Negative competition is all about being better than or feeling inferior to others — based on outcomes or accomplishments. In a team setting, negative internal competition shuts down trust and psychological safety and is detrimental to the culture. It usually takes one of three forms:
- One person competing against another person on the team
- One person competing against the entire team
- One team competing against another team within the organization
What is Positive Competition?
Positive competition occurs when we compete healthily — in a way that brings out the best in us and everyone involved. It’s a way to challenge yourself and others while pushing those around you. It allows you to tap into your potential and succeed.
When we compete in this positive way, we aren’t rooting for others to fail or become obsessed with winning at all costs. We realize that we aren’t “good” or “bad” and that the result doesn’t determine our value as human beings.
Of course, we may “win,” or we may “lose” the competition we’re engaged in, and there are times when the outcome has a significant impact and is important. Positive competition is about growth, grit, and taking ourselves and our team to the next level.
When we compete positively, it benefits us and anyone else involved. Here are some of the many benefits of positive competition:
- Sparks creativity
- Motivates others
- Increases effort
- Increases productivity
- It helps people assess their strengths and weaknesses
- Increases the quality of work
- Keeps you alert
An Example of Positive Competition
A straightforward example of positive competition comes from exercise.
Think about how you feel when you work out with others. Not only does it motivate you, but it also keeps you accountable.
Working out with another person is a positive, practical strategy for getting in shape because having a workout partner creates accountability, support, and motivation.
Let’s say you and I decided to work out together regularly, and we picked a few different activities such as running, biking, and tennis that we’d do a few times a week. And let’s imagine we decided to add a little competition to make it more interesting. If we negatively competed against each other, I would obsess with figuring out how to run faster, bike farther, and beat you at tennis.
And if I got really into it, I might find myself feeling stressed before we worked out, and after we got done, I’d be either happy or upset depending on how I did in comparison to you on a particular day. I might even find myself taunting you if I “won” or feeling defensive, jealous, or angry if I “lost.”
However, if we went about these same activities in a positively competitive way, we could still compete to win in tennis or race each other in running or biking.
We wouldn’t waste our time and energy attaching too much meaning to the outcome but instead realized that we would both get a better workout by pushing one another past our perceived limitations. We would both get a better workout, helping each of us be as healthy and fit as possible.
It is really important for us to let go of negative comparisons to reach our full potential.
Pay Attention to Competition
In a team setting, it’s essential to pay attention to competition. One great way to create a positive work environment is through positive, healthy competition (learn more about creating a positive work environment here).
We all have the capacity for both positive and negative competition. When we are aware of our own and others’ competitive tendencies, it is easier to talk about and pay attention to them when they manifest themselves.
Think about championship teams and how they embrace competition. They harness its positive power to fuel individual and collective growth and success.
Creating a culture of positive competition can bring out the best in us and everyone on the team.
And at the end of the day, remember that life is not a competition.
Step into a more authentic version of positive competition that can empower you and those around you to reach new heights in all areas of life and business.
Are you competing positively or negatively? What can you do to create an environment of positive competition around you?
I have written five books about the importance of trust, authenticity, appreciation, and more. I deliver keynotes and seminars (both in-person and virtually) to empower people, leaders, and teams to grow, connect, and perform their best. As an expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, I teach techniques that allow people and organizations to be more authentic and effective. Find out more about how I can help you and your team achieve your goals today.
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This article was originally published on August 14, 2018 as an excerpt from my book, Bring Your Whole Self to Work (published by Hay House). This article has been updated for 2021.