Editor’s note: Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer with the Xerox Corporation. Competition in the workplace might be unavoidable — but, as Stephens explains below, service managers can put it to work for good or ill.

Business leaders may not like to admit it, but they regularly use competitive contests to get more productivity out of their employees. Programs like “Presidents Club” and “Gold Star Awards” pit a group of employees against each other and only one winner can emerge. These types of programs can be effective ways to spur higher productivity rates, but they often erode morale when they are poorly designed or administered. Here are my observations on what makes an effective competitive program, and when those programs can harm the team.

One Huge Prize — Once a Year

To me, this is the biggest competition mistake of them all. The prize is usually a trip to a resort or a touristy destination (and maybe even some cash to take along), but only one winner gets to enjoy the scenery on the company’s dime. So if you’re the first runner-up and get the $50 Home Depot gift card consolation prize … well, there’s always next year.

Besides the obvious slight to all those who worked their butts off only to receive bupkis for their efforts, the program can be flawed in other ways. Oftentimes the award is left to the manager’s discretion, so even if the manager’s pick is fair, those who lose see the winner as the boss’s pet and grumbling ensues as soon as the winner is announced (sadly, they are often right). Another mistake is using easily manipulated metrics to pick the winner, which means that techs can be rewarded for conniving and false reporting.

If your company insists on using a Big Prize Program, only use data as criteria that can’t be manipulated by reporting. The manager (and anyone closely associated with the team) should not be the ones to administer the award. Another idea: make last year’s winner ineligible for the current year. They might have the dream territory that performs better than all others — no matter who’s working it.

Smaller Awards — More Frequent Winners

I like this idea a lot better. I would even agree to leave the awards to the manager’s discretion, but only if he or she is determined to ensure that every team member wins at one time or another. Field service technicians are often starving for praise, whether they’ll admit it or not, and a free lunch or gift card for “having the cleanest machines on the team” will buy you loyalty and bolster poor attitudes that lead to less productivity. Just try not to be too blatant about the fact that everyone’s a winner or your techs will start to feel patronized.

Pay-for-Performance Rewards

There’s no denying that money is the king of rewards. Few techs will willingly give up their weekends or stay well past the end of their quit time to get a customer up and running because they love the company so much that they’ll do anything to help. No — they’ll do it because the overtime pay will help them buy that new toy they’re saving up for. For this reason, pay-for-performance programs are an excellent way to encourage productivity. The challenge is designing a program that is fair and equitable for all. If you put too many conditions on payouts, it will hamper technicians’ enthusiasm for the reward. Periodic bonuses based on the profitability of the entire service team are perhaps the best way to inspire productivity. They foster a team spirit, encouraging everyone to pull their weight at turning a profit.

Getting Back to Healthy Competition

If you’ve read this blog and feel like I’m not a big believer in pitting techs against each other to spur them on to excellence, then I’ve done my job. But I do believe that there is a place for a healthy competitive spirit in the field service workforce. I was once on a team that had a sporting attitude about who could do the best job cleaning the machines. No awards were given and no one was singled out in a meeting as the master cleaner. Our manager had no idea about the competition, but we still had a great time teasing each other about dirt or fingerprints left behind.

There are a couple of things that managers can do to stir the healthy competitive pot without the techs realizing they are being instigated to compete. Like everyone, field service techs are starving for approval. When a manager says, “Hey thanks, you did a great job cleaning that machine!” techs will pretend to blow it off, but deep down inside they’ll want to do an even better job the next time. They will, in a sense, be competing with themselves. Give a small complement in a team meeting and everyone will want to top the cleaning job. Just don’t make too big a deal out of it, or it’ll turn unhealthy in no time.

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