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Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, who have vanquished their rivals in their respective conferences to earn the right to meet in this year’s Super Bowl.

While rivalry between teams may boost focus, motivation, and performance, as well as stoke fan interest, what about rivalry within a team?

In sports, there are some coaches who believe that having players constantly compete against one other for starting jobs and playing time makes the team better. The same is true in business, where some managers believe the best way to keep workers sharp is to have them constantly compete for recognition, awards, bonuses, and promotions.

But my research, along with other recent studies, shows that the strategy is not without risk. In business and athletics, fostering intra-team rivalry is a Catch 22 phenomenon.

On the plus side, it often increases individual motivation and performance, which can boost team performance as well. But there is a dark side to intra-team rivalry, in which it can conversely lead to what’s known as “individual deviance,” or behavior that runs counter to the team’s social norms.

If left unchecked, intra-team rivalry can curdle relationships and sap team spirit, leading some team members to engage in unethical behavior such as backstabbing, cheating, or even go so far as to sabotage the team.

Business managers and sports coaches alike would do well to pay close attention to the thin line between the pluses and negatives that intra-team rivalry engenders.

The Dark Side of Rivalry

Most research regarding rivalry to date has focused on people competing on opposing sides in business organizations or sports teams, or what’s known as inter-team rivalry. There is now increasing interest in the field in studying the effects of rivalry among teammates as well.

My research on intra-team rivalry includes two studies examining team member behaviors and individual and team performance within teams. Both were conducted by surveying college athletes.

In the first, I surveyed 311 college students about their experiences participating on high school athletic teams. I found that intra-team rivalry was linked to improved individual motivation and performance, as well as team performance. What’s known as “social comparison”—individuals comparing themselves to others, in this case, teammates, to boost their own motivation, performance, and self-image—mediated the positive relationship between intra-team rivalry and individual performance.

The second study surveyed 240 current collegiate student-athletes and once again found that social comparison is a key to intra-team rivalry having a positive effect on individual and team performance.

But here is where the Catch 22 comes into play. In both studies, I also found that intra-team rivalry increases individual deviance, which contributes to the dark side of rivalry. And in the second survey, I found a significant negative relationship between individual deviance and team performance.

Applying the Principles to Business and Sports

My work clearly has ramifications for sports teams. It also suggests practical implications in the highly competitive world of business. People who work together spend a lot of time together, and often get to know each other well. It’s only natural that they would compare themselves socially to their colleagues—especially if they begin to see them as competitors as well.

Here are some suggestions to get the most out of intra-team rivalry, while avoiding the dark side:

  • Remember, social comparison helps keep intra-team rivalry positive. Organizational leaders should encourage it by making the results of in-team competitions public. In business, that could mean posting them in the department. In athletics, the locker room.
  • We know that increasing motivation increases team performance, which is the goal of any coach or business manager. So whether in business or athletics, leaders could increase the number of times team members compete with one another during work hours. And it would also help to have team members spend more time together outside of work hours. Consider adding team building activities, seminars, and other social gatherings that are seasonal in nature.
  • And now a word of caution: Organizational leaders need to carefully monitor signs of the “dark side” phenomenon to ensure a professional work environment is maintained and the performance level of the team remains optimal. One example is to focus on group-based commission incentives and decrease the percentage of individual commission-based sales much lower than 80 percent. Another is to watch for pressure to conform within the team—especially if deviant behavior develops. Business managers and sports coaches alike also need to treat their employees consistently and in accordance with organizational policies. Nothing is more likely to turn employees to the “dark side” than the feeling that they have been treated unfairly.
  • Use team-based goals as the primary driver of team performance. In addition to number of wins, athletic coaches can set team-based goals for disciplined play (minimizing fouls or penalties, for example) or that incentivize collaboration during competition (assists, for example). In business, managers could set metrics for sales teams such as increasing the amount sold over the same month last year. Or for a new product launch, they could create incentives for the team to have the highest sales in a company district, region, etc.

Intra-team rivalry is prevalent among individuals in both college athletics and the professional world of business. The key is to make sure that in creating a competitive environment, you don’t forfeit collaboration.

Odds are that teams will attain their best results when they collaboratively combine the strengths of all their individual members. Whether in business or sports, managers and coaches need to be aware of how to foster intra-team rivalry in a positive way.

Tags: teamwork
Kenneth Mawritz

Kenneth J. Mawritz Jr.

Kenneth J. Mawritz, Jr. is a professor of practice in the Department of Management at Lehigh Business.