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Do Employee Competitions Work?

Do Employee


Blog Post

Using employee competitions to improve engagement


Mark Keeton, Vice President
Solution Management

Google employee engagement and competitions and you’ll come up with many, many pages encouraging gamification and other competitions to improve workplace culture.

Competition isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can encourage us to achieve goals and motivate us to work harder. When we win a competition, many people relish the recognition which can boost morale.

Putting together a fun-spirited employee competition can build camaraderie and make your employees excited about coming to work. Of course, it’s not the golden ticket to fixing employee engagement but as part of a well-thought-out and executed plan, it can help.

It’s important to note that these competitions are not the same as sales incentive competitions. Dig a little deeper through Google and you’ll start to find cautionary tales about incentive competitions going awry — for example, Wells Fargo employees setting up fraudulent credit card accounts to win incentive competitions in 2011 and earlier. Competitions that are tied to financial incentives can lead to cut-throat behavior and ethical slides. As in the Wells Fargo case, employees started with a small unethical act before progressing to the more serious ones. “The justification moves from “it’s legal” to “no one is harmed” to “no one will notice,” according to a Harvard Business Review article, “Wells Fargo and the Slippery Slope of Sales Incentives.” “When such practices are tolerated, they escalate in severity and spread throughout the organization.”

When planning a workplace competition to boost morale and improve culture, consider these tips:

  • Incentives other than cash can encourage higher performance. Interesting work, recognition, other kinds of incentives can all make employees feel rewarded and motivated.
  • If you are focused on improving culture, ask employees what kinds of games or competition would make them feel more engaged. You may be surprised at some of the answers. Some employees may want to golf while others want to compete by gathering the most pet food for a local shelter. These are opportunities to learn what employees are interested in and these conversations also can help as you craft a purpose-driven culture. Customize the competition just as you would the reward.
  • Make sure your managers are on board. A lack of strong leadership can impact the success or failure of a program. If a manager is not invested in the workplace culture incentive, he or she may undermine their team’s participation by downplaying the events or worse — bad-mouthing them.
  • Remember that not everyone feels the same way about competitions. There are some employees who will not enjoy them. Maybe they aren’t competitive or they are worried about performing badly in front of or as part of a team. Consider their feelings and help find ways for them to feel more comfortable with the program.
  • Consistency and fairness are key. Make sure you are judging the competitions fairly. Empanel a group of employees to help judge, if appropriate. And, if you set the stage for a yearly or monthly competition, follow through. It’s demoralizing to tell employees you are going to do something and then drop it following the initial burst of enthusiasm.

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