“Competition has shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Growing up in Toronto, it’s difficult to get away from eating, sleeping and breathing hockey. Toronto is a passionate hockey city, and it’s the first sport I remember hearing adults talking, debating and lamenting about when I was a kid. Unfortunately, the Toronto Maple Leaf’s has not been a championship team since 1967, and I am not old enough to remember the glory days of the leaf franchise. Even though their winning ways are far in the past, many of us are desperate die-hard fans. There is always a glimmer of hope no matter how dim that they will bring home the Stanley cup.  

This last year gave the city and the country a lot to celebrate, but not in hockey, in Basketball! The Toronto Raptors made their way to the NBA championships and, in the end, won it all. The city was in shock as it has been quite a few years since we’ve seen a champion in any sport, be it hockey, basketball or baseball. Has this lessened our interest in hockey? No, not really. It just makes us more envious and excited about the possibility of the Leaf’s winning the cup. The pressure is on. 

Hockey, at times, gives us a lot to think about; these past few weeks have brought forth some stories in Hockey we are not so proud of. Mistreatment of players and poor management practices on the bench call to my experience in management, human resources and recruiting and the lessons learned over the years.  

The larger story in the NHL has been about coaches who have allegedly mistreated players. To the point of players being bullied by coaching staff or even experienced, physical and verbal abuse, as well as racial slurs. While, at the time of this writing, some of the allegations are yet to be confirmed. The good news is that the NHL is taking action by putting in some controls in place to change the culture in the hockey world. 

One of the stories that struck me was about Toronto’s now ex-coach.   Mike Babcock, who was recently fired from the Leaf’s, had asked a young rookie Mitch Marner, four years ago, to rank the players on the team based on their work ethic.  Then shared the list with the team.  This would typically have the detrimental effect of pitting Marner against the other players. However, according to Marner, the players did not take it to heart and hold it against him.  They knew that he had been put up to it.  This tells us that the culture of the players was solid, and it wasn’t to be tarnished or broken by the coach’s actions.  This says a lot about the culture and how, in many cases, it is owned by the players or employees rather than the coaches or management team.  On the other hand, the coach’s actions show a poor management practice of pitting players or employees against each other that I’ve seen many times in business. 

For years, I felt, and I’m sure that many leaders still think that pitting employees against each other is a great practice to stimulate productivity.  In my experience, it does more harm than good.  Here’s why: 

Internal Rivalries 

Some employees become overly competitive with one another and create factions and rivalries within the organization.  Work is not a game; in many cases, there are significant monetary awards on the line, not to mention recognition that could lead to advancement.    Sadly, I’ve seen many healthy relationships trampled by rivalries created by management practices promoting unhealthy competition.   And this has always harmed the culture.  Many relationships are destroyed as hurtful things are said or done that are irreparable. 

Win at all cost approach 

Another thing I’ve seen is employees using an underhanded approach to win at all costs.  Whether it be, using their influence with others, or knowledge of systems and processes to undermine their colleagues. Or they are spending inordinate amounts of time creeping through information to determine where their rival colleague stands in the competition.  This destroys trust and causes a deep gash in culture and shifts it towards fear and scarcity.  Unhealthy competition brings out the worst in your employees, not the best. 

Hiding Information 

Intense competition causes individuals to stop sharing information for fear that others will use that information as leverage against them.  This creates an extra burden on management to invest heavily in systems and processes that force transparency.  But even with substantial investment, overly competitive employees will find ways to hide information from their colleagues to gain an edge.   It becomes a battle of one-upping the other employee, not a focus on becoming better at your role or creating additional value for the team. 

The Toronto Maple Leaf’s Coach’s management practice of pitting one employee against the others had a minimal effect on the team.   The ingrained culture did not accept this negative approach.  The attempt to do so was rejected right away and not taken seriously by the players.  However, we can’t underestimate the effect that it had on Marner as a young rookie being asked by his coach to create such a list.      

Other organizations, run with overly competitive management practices, are not so lucky, however, and have become dens of paranoia, rivalries and silos of employees. Too competitive employees may say they are a part of a team but have lost sight of what that means.  That is not to say that these organizations have been unsuccessful from a revenue or profitability standpoint.  They may very well be.  But is that a place that anyone would choose to work?  And why would managers want to create this environment?  Do they lack the creativity to build an organization that focuses on internal collaboration and teamwork?   

Collaboration is the opposite of unhealthy competition and the key to a successful organization because it creates a sharing environment and emphasizes who the real competitor is.  External to the organization, not internal.  It’s in the employee’s and the team’s best interest to bound together and create a bigger pie for everyone in the company to share.  Not fight over the size of their piece in a smaller pie.   Taking it one step further, organizations that create a learning environment, emphasize the real competition is yourself.  Employees should focus on getting better every day by learning and improving their skills.  


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