The president of a high-growth and successful service company recently confided that two of his top executives were not getting along. “They speak badly of each other to me, behind each other’s backs,” he said.  “They can pretend to get along in meetings, but when they’re with me one-on-one, they throw digs at each other. They don’t share information with each other that they should. I’m afraid this behavior is going to slow down a major project, and I don’t know what to do. They are both stars. I don’t know what happened.”I know what happened. After asking a few questions, I learned that the president, in an effort to be transparent, had informed both of his “stars” that both of them were listed on his succession plan  and one of them would likely be named as his successor. As a result, and without intending to, the well-meaning president pitted two of his best executives against each other. He practically encouraged them to compete against each other. And that’s exactly what they did.

Is Internal Competition Good?

Conventional wisdom and research show that competition encourages progress, performance and innovation. Competition can unite teams, bringing them to work together – efficiently — against a common external adversary. Internal competition may do the opposite.
Internally, there is a distinction between being self-accountable and being competitive. Self-accountability – taking measure of your abilities and comparing your abilities with those of your peers – can be very healthy. Internal competition on the other hand, can be very unhealthy, making teams less effective, leading to silos, secrecy, withholding of information, backstabbing, and inefficiencies.

Three Ways to Avoid Dysfunctional Competition

  1. While it’s fine to inform individuals that they are on a succession list (in fact, it might even be motivational), it is detrimental to reveal to one individual who else might be on the list. Remember, your goal is to prepare and motivate, not undermine and sabotage.
  2. Examine your own leadership behavior for fairness. Do you unwittingly pit your team against each other by rewarding some individuals but not others who are equally deserving?
  3. Evaluate your HR and compensation systems for unintended behavioral consequences. For example, do your incentive and bonus structures perpetuate – or even encourage — the formation of silos and in-fighting?

As an effective leader, your actions can lead to team infighting or team – and individual — success. When you reward high performers, making them feel secure and capable, you unite them to compete together to achieve common goals and your organization wins.

What do you think? I’m always interested in your perspective!The short-term and long-term benefits to your organization, I assure you, will be entirely worth it.

Paulette Ashlin’s book, Leading: The Way – Behaviors that Drive Success outlines the importance of responding to, changing, and improving your behavior to become the best leader you can be.  Find out more at