5 principles for using competition in training and management
Posted May 27 2009 10:49pm
How many people attend typical sports events in your community?
If you’re in a city with a major league sports team, the answer is probably in the tens of thousands for every event. I frequently marvel at sporting arenas that attract and hold as many people as live in my entire home town.
Now think about the last time you went to a community lecture. I see announcements about visiting lecturers at colleges nearby that are free and open to the public on a regular basis. They look interesting – but I’ve rarely attended.
On the other hand, we held season tickets to the Portland Trailblazers for several years, even after the tickets had become ridiculously expensive.
I’m guessing that most of our employees are in the same boat. They’d rather play a competitive game than listen to a lecture or watch a video. And let’s face it: when we’re having fun, we’re more inclined to repeat the activity and to remember it.
Our aQuire Training team has built learning games into many of our courses with this very idea in mind – we learn better when we’re having fun with the learning process.
So as a trainer and manager, let’s look at ways you can incorporate competition – healthy, fun competition – into your workplace to motivate and energize your team:
Don’t end up with losers. If you’ve got a winner, you’ve also got losers, right? Think this through carefully when you’re creating situations where someone can become a winner. Structure any competitive event in such a way that everyone can win, if at all possible. For example, set up a winner’s category for anyone who scores over 95% in the quiz at the end of a course. Let people re-take their quizzes as often as they need to until they score 95%. Everyone can be winners (unless they simply don’t care or aren’t trying). If you pit one team against another, think about how the losing team will feel. Set up parameters in advance for the losing team to also get a reward, or set up multiple “winner” categories. Remember a guiding principle of good business: the win/win situation. It works in training and management, too.
Keep the playing field level. In one of our continuing ed courses for administrators on empowering employees to become the best they can be an example is given of a manager who set up a competition for the best customer service delivery. Of course, night shift didn’t really have a chance; even evenings had a tough time meeting the number of positive comments day shift staffers got. But the contest completely went wrong when one very competitive staff person went out of his way to get noticed by residents, and followed up that help with a request that they fill out a comment card about his excellent customer service. As the story turns out, the one employee won the contest; the other employees simply felt that the contest “wasn’t fair.” In reality, it didn’t set up a good, healthy competition or encourage genuine behavior change among employees.
Remember the whole team. In setting up a competition, even in training, you may be inadvertently doing the exact opposite of what you’re really trying to do: build a stronger, more effective team overall. You may, in fact, be breaking down your team, especially if the competition results in one group trying to undermine another group. A better approach is to create an environment where you encourage collaboration and cooperation, perhaps to beat an arbitrary rival (like a time goal, for example). Perhaps you play a “beat the clock” game where each person needs to complete a quiz in a certain amount of time for the entire team to beat the clock and win a prize. Stronger team members can help those who struggle a bit, and together reach the goal. Perhaps the goal can be greater for everyone when more individuals achieve it, encouraging everyone to seek out others to encourage or help. You can set up a competition that allows everyone to work together to build a stronger team overall, and that’s a win in anyone’s book!
Reward creativity. I’ve long believed that the best managers – and the best caregivers – are some of the most creative individuals I know. Certainly parts of our job don’t allow creativity (record-keeping and numbers, for example); other parts of our jobs require creativity to resolve problems, overcome resistance to change and other frequently-encountered situations. Look for ways to reward creativity when you’re setting up competition, rather than rewarding just those that do it “by the book.” One example I hear frequently from experienced managers is their practice of rewarding behavior “on the fly.” After focusing on a particular behavior in their training assignment or presentation, they keep a quiet watch to observe for this behavior. They work hard to catch someone doing it exactly right – and then they reward the person, publicly and clearly, with a lottery ticket, movie ticket or some other tangible token of appreciation. It works, it’s cheap and it is appreciated by the person being noticed. Just be sure to watch those who work quietly in the background even more closely than those who easily gain the attention of everyone around them.
Another technique to try is to set up a scenario, based on a topic you’ve assigned for training, and divide your team into groups with the task to come up with the most creative solution to the problem scenario. Give each group a few minutes to brainstorm their solution, then share it will the entire team. After all teams have shared, open the discussion up to everyone to equally contribute more ideas, based on what has been shared. Remember to create an environment that doesn’t set up losers and that encourages collaboration and cooperation – everyone wins.
Competition can be a powerful tool. In the workplace, it can set up a team for division and distrust or, in the hands of a skilled manager, it can help build a stronger, more effective team. Try these ideas and let me know how they work for you!
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