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

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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.

Clarity

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.

Fairness

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.

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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.