What Tech Companies Have Gotten Wrong About Competition

Can competition have positive qualities or is it toxic? This is what the evidence has to say about that.

Chuma S. Okoro
4 min readMar 10, 2023

The merit of competition amongst teams has always been a contentious point from benign games like football to highly impactful industries like technology. One side of the argument suggests that competition can be exciting and even make all parties involved perform better than they would have without the competition. Another side of the argument suggests that it can become very toxic and actually discourage future collaboration. Luckily for us, this is a topic that organizational psychologists have studied and there is evidence-based research that supports the idea of competition within teams when it follows certain guidelines.


As you might suspect, the guidelines for being the champion in a given competition need to be very clear to all competitors. Just imagine what a competition without these guidelines or rules being set would look like. A judge could just choose someone that is similar to them due to similarity bias, a common bias elaborated in Biases That Affect Hiring and Firing. Making these rules clear to competition participants would help to reduce some of those potential biases.


What good is having clear rules if the rules aren’t fair? Let’s say you’re a software engineer at some tech company and there’s an engineer of the month competition. The winner is the person who has made the most amount of lifetime code changes to the company’s codebase. Well, what does this really mean? Likely, the engineers with the most tenure at the company will always win because they’ve been there longer and had more opportunities to build a collection of code changes. If I’m a new joiner to the company, I pretty much have no chance unless I work really hard for a really long time because the tenured person has a head start given the established rules. If the rules had a clause that only the commits made in said month count, that would make everyone more interested in participating in the competition.


The reason sports-related competitions are so fun for participants and viewers likely has something to do with the fact that sports are generally unimportant to the real issues in most folks’ lives. The real issues like healthcare, access to quality education, and more aren’t impacted by whether your favorite sports team wins. Now if you found out your child’s health was dependent upon whether the Giants make the playoffs, you probably wouldn’t have the highest opinion about football. This demonstrates why competitions within organizations need to be unimportant, according to evidence-based research, in order to increase performance and trust among employees. If people find out that a little hackathon for the company determines whether or not they’ll get a raise that year, you may not get the positive impact you desire within your organization.


Many of y’all have experienced those little competitions at work where it’s really just the employer telling you to work harder. For example, let’s say in that hackathon example, the possible options for projects only include the same revenue-generating things that you already do on a daily basis. Employees will see through that slick maneuver and you will likely not see the positive benefits of competition. Treat employees in your organization like the intelligent people you believed them to be when you hired them. Use your creativity and make the competition fun!

The research is in. Competition does have some powerful benefits like increasing contextual performance as well as trust amongst employees within an organization. That being said, it only works when the competitions are deemed fair, have clear guidelines for winning, are lighthearted, and are genuine as opposed to contrived for corporate profits. Try this out in your organization and let me know how it goes!



Chuma S. Okoro

Sr. Software Engineer @ Bloomberg. I love talking about technology and business. Every article has my opinion backed by my experience, education, and research.