Sport and competition go together. Taking the competition away from sport would reduce it to a pointless, illogical activity. Competition and business go together too, and many links are made between sporting achievement and business success. But work and business are not games. Competition is no longer healthy in the workplace when it gets out of hand.

The essential difference between sporting competition and competition in the business world is choice. Players choose to compete in a sport at the level of competition they feel comfortable with. Not every tennis player wants to play at Wimbledon or the US Open. Players match the level of competition with their motivation, so many are content to play as “duffers” with their friends or in local tournaments. Being in control of the challenge allows competition to be fun. If you’re truly keen, you can try for the heights. If you’re less willing to give your all to the sport, you can settle somewhere lower down.

Compare this with much of the business world today, where organizations establish highly competitive structures for salaries, promotions, and even keeping your job. The organization unilaterally sets the standards you must meet to win, often at some impossibly elevated level based on the aspirations and fantasies of the CEO, not the actual abilities of the staff. Competition is definitely not voluntary. Failure doesn’t see you dropped to a lower league more suited to your talent. It gets you branded a loser with a big dent in your job prospects. In this environment, competition is forced on you. Like some circus animal prodded to jump through a series of hoops for the amusement of the audience, you have no control over what you are challenged to do.

When competition is forced on people, it’s no longer fun or motivating, especially if the level is set well above where they feel confident. Instead of the pleasure of feeling they have a good chance of winning, their main desire is to avoid being humiliated. Being overmatched does nothing to increase motivation or skill.

Working life would be better if leaders thought about competition in more humane terms, and worked to create environments that bring out the fun element of competition, not the harsher, punitive side. Generating the right level of competition to stimulate each person without overmatching them and crushing their spirit is a skill that can turn any leader into a cherished mentor.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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