Competition as a Strategy to Engage Others

Because there are both benefits and trappings for competition, leaders need to be wary of using competition as a strategy to engage others. Sometimes competition engages others and sometimes not.

There are times when competition can breed high engagement and excellence. I remember my husband and me deciding to enter a workplace photo competition – back when there were no cell phones. He taunted me with his superior Pentax camera and expensive attachments since I only had an automatic camera. However, what I lacked in equipment I made up for in artistic abilities. The result was I won second place overall in the competition with a trophy and a large framed version of my winning photograph while my husband got an “honorable mention” ribbon. Regardless, we were both highly engaged!

While competition can increase engagement and performance, competition can also be a barrier to engagement and performance. I remember when another PhD chemical engineer and I were new to a research group and both of us full of ideas. The other engineer had an overt competitive attitude of “may the best PhD engineer win.” Initially, I tried initially working with this other PhD engineer but I quickly started avoiding him because my ability to collaborate and create suffered with him. Instead, I collaborated with other seasoned engineers in the group and my creativity bloomed. While the other PhD engineer and I did some good work on our own, I believe we could have done even better work together. In this case, competition led to disengagement between me and the other PhD chemical engineer.

What determines if competition will lead to engagement or not? Competition leads to engagement when competition is designed to improve performance. When does competition lead to improved performance? Dr. Andrew J. Elliott, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, has researched the relationship between competition and performance. Dr. Elliott has found that your goal mindset during competition predicts whether or not your performance will increase or decrease ( Specifically, if your goal mindset in competing is to avoid looking bad compared to others, then your performance will suffer. In my case with a PhD work colleague, I did not want him to make me look bad in front of our coworkers because I was new to the group and I wanted to make a good impression. Working with this PhD work colleague decreased my performance as a result of this goal mindset. However, if your goal mindset in competing is to look good compared to others, then your performance will be enhanced because you will work harder. In a workplace photo competition with my husband, I wanted to showcase my artistic ability by looking good compared to others. As a result of this goal mindset, I won second place overall which was high performance for me.

What determines our need to look good compared to others versus our need to avoid looking bad compared to others? There are two mindsets that influence the often non-conscious decision to look good or avoid looking bad. These two mindsets called growth mindset and fixed mindset were discovered and described by Dr. Carol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University ( We want to look good compared to others in a competition when we have a growth mindset towards the relevant skills and competencies. A growth mindset is the belief that we can change and improve the skills and competence needed for the competition by working hard in the right ways. Dr. Dweck has found that those with a growth mindset tend to achieve more challenging goals by voluntarily putting in more effort than those without this mindset. Conversely, we want to avoid looking bad compared to others when we have a fixed mindset towards the skills and competence needed in the competition. A fixed mindset is the belief that we are as good as we are going to get in a specific skill or competence. Dr. Dweck has also found that those with a fixed mindset are more concerned with looking smart or talented than with learning to improve. Looking smart or talented is at the root of the need to avoid looking bad compared to others.

According to clinical psychologist Dr. Craig Dike, competition drives biological and psychological evolution ( Evolution is about progress and progress is desirable. Thus, competition designed for progress to occur will increase engagement. In order for progress to occur, the challenging goal that people are competing towards needs to be achieved. According to neuroscience, answering both “why” and “how” questions plays a critical role in goal pursuit and goal accomplishment (Berkman E.T. and Rock D. “AIM: An Integrative Model of Goal Pursuit,” Neuroleadership Journal, September 2014: Volume 5, 15 pages). If the answer to the “why” questions can be framed in terms of what is intrinsically motivating for those participating in the competition, then goal pursuit is greatly enhanced. However, the “how” questions for goal pursuit also need to be asked and answered in order for the goal to be achieved. Engagement occurs when those involved commit to the “why” of the goal and can see the “how” for the challenging goal to be accomplished.

A watch-out when it comes to goal pursuit in a competition is expectation. If you have too high or too low of an expectation for performance against a goal, whether or not the expectation is reasonable, then you can end up a sore loser or a sore winner. The behaviors of sore losers and sore winners are undesirable – especially in workplaces. Neuroscientists have discovered that there is a relationship between the degree of expectation regarding goal performance and the functioning of our thinking brain (Rock D. Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. 2009: HarperCollins Publishers). Specifically, too little expectation or too much expectation degrades the performance of our thinking brain and lets more of our non-conscious emotional brain in. An added problem with too much expectation is that a big difference between what we expect and what actually happens can lead to a threat response in the brain which shuts down our brain’s thinking capacity even more and lets emotions invade unchecked. It is when our thinking capacity is diminished because of too high or too low expectations regarding a competition that unchecked emotions can lead to behaving like a sore loser or a sore winner.

There are both benefits and trappings to competition. If the benefits can be leveraged and the trappings avoided, then competition becomes a great strategy to engage others. The potential benefits of competition include enhanced performance, progress in the form of biological and psychological evolution, and good behavior whether you win or lose. The potential trappings of competition include degraded performance, a lost opportunity for learning and personal growth, and bad behavior relative to the competition outcome. Three science-based ways that leaders can harvest the benefits and avoid the trappings of competition to engage others are as follows:

  • Help those competing to find a connection between the goal and their sources of intrinsic motivation
  • Help those competing to focus more on how to accomplish the goal rather than on who is going to win or lose
  • Cultivate a growth mindset for goal pursuit by framing the competition as an opportunity for participants to learn and develop (see for additional ideas on how to promote a growth mindset for the competition)

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