The secret to success: Have a workplace rival

Daniel McGinn is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed (Portfolio, 2017), from which this article is adapted.

Even a century later, it remains a landmark study.

Norman Triplett, a graduate student at Indiana University, was looking at data from a set of 1897 bicycle races when he observed how bicyclists’ speed varied depending on whether they were riding alone against the clock, alongside a pacer who rides at a prescribed speed, or in an actual head-to-head race.

As Triplett analyzed the data, he noticed that riders competing against another racer cycled significantly faster. He explored various potential causes before concluding the effect was psychological.

“The bodily presence of another rider is a stimulus to the racer in arousing the competitive instinct,” Triplett wrote.

To test the theory, Triplett created a contraption that resembled two side-by-side fishing reels. He had 40 schoolchildren compete in reeling contests, against each other and against the clock. The results showed how competition makes people perform better.

This insight is no revelation to anyone who watches sports. (Recall Michael Phelps staring down his opponent prior to a race at the 2016 Rio Olympics.) But it’s a phenomenon we also can use to perform better in environments beyond athletics.

Consider the workplace. Recent research co-authored by Harvard Business School professor Dylan Minor showed that who a person sits next to at work can have significant effects on productivity.

Other research has shown that working with a “frenemy” can be a source of motivation.

“Working alongside them will make you work harder to prove yourself,” say researchers Shimul Melwani and Naomi Rothman.

Gavin Kilduff, an associate professor of management at New York University, has been fascinated by such rivalries since he was a child, when he noticed himself competing more intently at video games or basketball against friends. That makes sense.

Research by Kilduff and others has shown that rivals tend to share similar attributes and characteristics, be evenly matched, and play each other frequently. (For instance, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are both 6-feet, 9-inches, attended Midwestern public universities, entered the NBA the same year, and led the Celtics and Laker during one of basketball’s greatest rivalries.) In a 2014 study, Kilduff found people felt more motivated and performed better against someone they considered a rival; he also found that recreational runners ran faster when a rival was also in the race.

Companies routinely create rivalries to motivate individuals at work. Sales managers often use leaderboards or competitions for prizes such as luxury travel to encourage sales reps to outperform colleagues. Many companies use forced-curve performance evaluation systems, in which only a limited number of workers can receive a high ranking, which implicitly creates competition among co-workers. (Lately these systems have been criticized for hurting collaboration, and some companies are moving away from them.)

Some CEOs view rivalry as a powerful dynamic to motivate not just individual employees, but an entire workforce. Since arriving at T-Mobile in 2012, CEO John Legere has gained attention by incessantly taunting and trash-talking Verizon and AT&T, which he calls “dumb and dumber.” In 2013 he started a Twitter account, and over the next three years he tweeted 17,500 times, with many of his missives criticizing these rivals. Legere attributes the approach to his athletic background.

“I grew up as a competitive runner, and I like rivalries. It’s just part of who I am,” he says. “I like winning, but I enjoy it even more when I’m making someone else lose.” Legere sees “picking a villain” as an essential part of business leadership, and one that’s helped motivate his workforce. It’s worked at T-Mobile: Since Legere took over, subscribers have jumped from 33.3 million to 66 million, and its stock price has quadrupled.

Other successful leaders dislike the rivalry model. Consider Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “There are companies out there where they wake up in the morning, and they organize their internal thoughts by who the competition is, and how they’re going to beat the competition,” Bezos told me in an interview. “That can be a very effective strategy, but it’s not the only one. The people who tend to do really well at Amazon have more of an explorer’s mentality. They’re waking up in the morning thinking ‘What can we invent for customers?’ … Both models can work, and you do see both models out there, but if you have to pick one of those two, I prefer the customer obsession to the competitor obsession.” One reason: The rivalry model becomes harder to sustain when a company becomes dominant, as Amazon has become.

Legere points out that a rivalry strategy needn’t always focus on an actual enemy. A CEO might anoint an idea such as “waste,” “defects,” “complacency,” or “bureaucracy” as the enemy, and attack with a ferocity that animates employees.

For an individual performer—someone who’s about to argue a case before a jury, pitch a business idea to a venture capitalist, or make a sales call to a huge potential client—there are a variety of techniques that can put you in the right mindset before a make-or-break moment. In the right circumstances, focusing on a rival as a motivating force can be one to consider.

Adapted from PSYCHED UP: How the Science of Mental Preparation Can Help You Succeed by Daniel McGinn, to be published on June 6, 2017 by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel McGinn