Company Culture

6 Ways to Build Healthy Competition at the Office

6 Ways to Build Healthy Competition at the Office

Members of Invoca's engineering team pitch in for the latest development sprint to create new features and updates for the company's platform.

Image credit: Invoca

Charles M. Schwab (the steel magnate, not the investor) once said, “the way things get done is to stimulate competition.” For Schwab’s steel business, it meant encouraging a friendly rivalry between the day and night shifts by writing their respective production numbers on the mill floor. 

Even if you’re not a titan of steel, you can employ similar management tactics by helping employees understand how they stand relative to their colleagues, encouraging the best performance from each individual and motivating everyone to have a stake in furthering business goals. 

I think all business should be approached the same way, with the right balance of teamwork and healthy competition.

Here are six ways to build an organization that strikes this balance: 

Related: Just Sticking Around for the Food? Why Company Culture Matters More Than Perks.

1. Remember, it's a game.

People often ask what advice I’d give my 18-year-old self. If I could go back in time, I’d remind myself that business is the sport people play as they get older.

Nobody dies when you make a mistake -- in most industries, at least. Take risks, swing the bat and see what happens.

2. Hire for hunger and humanity.

When interviewing candidates, I always ask myself, "Does this person want to win?" Some people believe success happens to other people. Then there are those who expect it from themselves.

If you can find the right balance of goal oriented and likeable in a person (skip those who are cutthroat), that’s the magic combination.

Consider if you can imagine working with this individual during an hour-long brainstorm or sitting next to him or her during a five-hour plane ride. That’s the kind of person you want on your team. 

3. Translate athletic experience into teamwork.

I like to hire athletes. If you walk through the office of my company, Invoca, you’ll see a semi-pro tennis player, a former sprinter on the UCLA water polo team and a member of the US ski team.

You certainly don’t have to be an athlete to succeed in business. But I believe that athletes are self-motivated, want to win and know how to help one another achieve a common goal.

Are they trying to close as many deals as they can? Yes. Are they helping each other do it? Yes.

Related: 5 Ways to Set Up Your Employees for Success in 2015

4. Be clear about acknowledgment and goals.

Ensure everyone is appropriately challenged and acknowledged. My company holds monthly all-hands meetings where high-achievers who are exceeding their goals are praised.

Don’t just give top performers a high five. Encourage others to learn from what they’re doing right.

Consider upping the level transparency by creating an open office plan where people become comfortable making calls in front of colleagues, overhearing one another’s pitches and leaning over desks to ask one another questions.  

5. Create a culture of ownership.

Every person should think like an owner and walk the floors like the company is his or hers. Whether your employees are literally owners or stakeholders, encourage them to blend their personal brand with the company’s.

At my company, there's a whiteboard that’s always open for suggestions. If leaders decide to dedicate resources to one of the suggestions, the person who came up with the idea knows he or she must do research and make it happen.

For instance, one of our engineers thought the company ought to have bikes available for employees' commute. The company funded the project, but she put in the research. Now there's a fleet of company bikes.

Another employee wanted to start a company ski trip. Still another wanted to brew a company beer. And yet another wanted to start a company band. Guess who got to make all those things happen? 

Related: 6 Ways to Go Above and Beyond the Average Work Retreat

6. Make things playful.

Competition doesn’t have to be serious or even directly related to a business objective.

Beyond setting formalized goals, incorporate fun challenges into your company's culture. Every year at my company's off-site meeting, staffers do silly things like sumo wrestle in 30-pound padded suits and race through obstacle courses.

It’s these kinds of moments, along with a spontaneous Nerf fight in the middle of the office on a Tuesday, that help people break out of their shells and think of themselves as part of the team. 

Whether you’re in the steel business or building a software as a service company, build friendly competition into your work culture. And hire people who expect the best from themselves and helping them achieve their personal best every day --  on their own and as part of the larger team.

That’s the kind of competition I’m interested in fostering. I believe it's the kind that Mr. Schwab would say "gets things done."

Related: 4 Ways to Preserve Your Company's Culture While It Grows