Is Competition Healthy?

Updated: Jun 13

Does internal competition bring out the best in your people or the worst?

Employ the Dagger

Today's article was inspired by my recent interview on The Leadership Project podcast with Marc Polymeropolous. Marc is a 26-year veteran of the CIA and the bestselling author of the book "Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA".

In his groundbreaking book Marc codifies 9 key leadership principles that he learned during his amazing career of service. Lessons learned in environments and crises that most of us could never fathom. Nevertheless Marc's leadership principles are applicable in all fields and domains of leadership.

One of these principles really grabbed our attention "employ the dagger". Beyond its shakespearean appeal this principle has depth and really challenged my thinking.

"Employ the Dagger" refers to having internal competition within your team to draw our the best in everyone. Marc tells the story of leading deployed teams in fields of operation. To give the team something to strive for Marc would go to the local market and buy a cheap wooden dagger that would serve as a trophy for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) or employee of the week/month, or whatever you would like to call it.

What ensued for Marc was a healthy competition where people would go above and beyond in their duties and service to win the honour of being awarded the dagger.

This concept got me thinking about the pros and cons of this approach. I can certainly see the power of this and can equally see where it could go wrong if not handled in the wonderfully positive way that Marc used. In today's article I am going to explore both.

"You get the behaviour you reward" - Stephen Shedletzky

To borrow a quote from my dear friend Shed, "You get the behaviour you reward".

If the "dagger" (or any trophy of your choice) is carefully used to reward behaviours that are congruent with the culture you aspire to have in your team, then we are in good shape. This could be a powerful tool and constant reinforcement of the behaviours you are looking for in your team. If the opposite is the case, then we have a real problem. If it creates a "win at all cost" mentality where people with do ANYTHING to win that trophy, including behaviours that are toxic or incompatible with the team's values, then we are headed for deep trouble.

Alignment to Purpose

The leader should be careful that the successes that are being rejoiced are truly aligned to the vision and purpose of the team. Ensure that winning the trophy has not become the goal, instead of doing meaningful things that serve the team's worthy purpose.

Inclusion, exclusion and (perceived) favouritism

The leader needs to be careful that the award system does not create any form of feeling from exclusion for anyone in the team that doesn't feel that they belong in the competition or the ceremony. It needs to be a level(ed) playing field based on equity where everyone feels they have a genuine shot to be rewarded for what they bring to the table. The leader needs to be careful of favouritism (real or perceived) and any bias (conscious or unconscious) related to decided who wins.

A key way to address this would be to make sure that one of the behaviours you are rewarding is people that go out of their way to create an inclusive environment and culture.

Universal Reward and Team Joy

The leader should be careful to select a reward that everyone in the team would universally strive to have. Everyone in your team has different preferences, so select something everyone would agree with a trophy worth striving for.

The ceremony should be a moment of Team Joy where feels part of the success and genuinely happy for the recipient. A healthy competition based on respect and support for each other.