Does Competition in the Workplace Work?

In Buckert et al’s article, “How Stressful are Economic Competitions in the Lab?”, Buckert et al show through experiment that economic competition in the workplace leads to an increase in stress levels and does not always maximize productivity.

The “winner-takes-it-all” format of economic competition is very common in the workplace, and has often been used to provide motivation for employees to reach maximum productivity. It has ignored however the repercussions that come from the stress of competition, including negative health impacts and at higher levels a decrease in performance. In Buckert et al’s experiment, the subjects never reached a stress level high enough to cause an increase in cortisol. I believe however that in the workplace where stakes are much higher than Buckert’s experiment, passive coping styles are much more common, where the stress of economic competition will not only decrease performance, but also negatively impact health.

The economic competition outlined in this article relates nicely to the article on competition in education by Nelson and Dawson that we analyzed earlier. Students competing for the highest mark or a limited number of scholarships is very similar to the competition set up by the workplace. I believe that if a similar experiment was done on students who were vying for a university acceptance or an A+, in many of the students there would be significant health impacts. Anxiety is very common in the modern education system, and it seems logical that this would come from a passive coping style to stress, where competition causes a decrease in mood and an increase in cortisol.

Economic competition is currently a grey area. @dcorrech goes into depth about the 3rd round of the Buckert et al experiment, where the test splits those who choose to compete further from those who choose a piece-rate style. While there are many individuals who jump at the sign of competition and are pushed to their limits competing with others, those with a passive coping style work much better in a competition-free environment. More experiments like Buckert et al’s need to be undertaken in order to find out if there is a better way to increase productivity in the workplace without compromising health.

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  1. Hey
    This is a good great read, however I think it would be safe to say that, the impacts that come with competition can either be positive or negative depending on how individual employees interpret their arousal. extreme anxiety or fear and excitement are the two emotional reaction toward competition and they vary per individual. Employees that respond with excitement tend to be more creative and instead turn this competition into a factor that increases their level of productivity. Most of them enjoy the feeling of being able to win or receiving public recognition for a job well done. The other group that is often anxious have low tendency to perform in face of competition because of fear of losing. M. Buckert has an argument with clear explanations that have experimental backing, however I also belief that there are individual factors that influence how competition is perceived and whether it increase productivity or not. Arguably, I think it all depends.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really liked this response to what I thought was quite a complicated article to read and understand. I thought that this comparison of competition in the workplace to how kids compete for certain scholarships is a very important aspect in what we’re currently studying. It seems to me that aside from the all the things we might be potentially taught in high school or university, we are almost primed to be competitive in the workplace. Competing for grades prepares us to be competitive in the workplace.

    From the research paper, it seems that competition is pushing people to their limits which isn’t always good, and this can apply to school as well. There don’t seem to be any benefits of this competition, be it in school or in the workplace.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi @paulkur, thanks for the comment. I touched on this a little in the last paragraph and @dcorrech also went more into depth about this idea, I also agree with you that individuals perceive competition in different ways. Individual factors split those who thrive under competition and perform better from those who take a passive coping strategy and cannot perform as well under pressure.


  4. Thanks for the comment @Mason, I believe that competition pushing people to their limits sometimes impacts individuals negatively, however you must also factor in those who love competition and perform better under a winner-takes-it-all style of economic competition. Although you are right in the fact that for many they cannot handle the stress attached to economic competition, I don’t believe it is fair to generalize that this competition negatively impacts everyone.


  5. Interesting outlook. It is definitely interesting that the stress accumulated from a competitive environment may invoke certain responses that may negatively affect health and/or performance in some individuals. However, it is worth noting that stressors should not be confused with stimulation. Some may think that competition may spur some stimulation in some. I think what makes this difficult to implement is that the line separating stimulation and stress depending on the input of competition varies amongst different individuals. Do you think there are ways to determine the best environment for different individuals and what do you think should be done to maximize health and performance?


  6. Hi Silaslm, this is an interesting reading response,

    I enjoy that you raise the issue that this research perhaps lacked the foresight of long-term stress which perhaps would display altering cortisol levels as you mentioned. As adamlittle5856 mentioned, it makes one question whether competition for stimulation increases productivity or reduces health and performance. Perhaps what makes the competitive edge so stressful is due to what is at stake. Do you believe that competition could make individuals in business environment prone to be more productive, or rather be discouraged and less efficient due to exhaustion and stress?


  7. Hey, I like how insightful your post was without using any complex, or rather, boring information that is sometimes hard to digest but you seemed to supplemented your post with well summarized material and did so with simple english. I also like how you included some of the discrepancies you had with the Buckert et al’s article, that I agree with by the way. Your post was straight to the point and was easy on the eyes. I also enjoyed you extending the conversation to the relatable context of us students and how we cope with that stress of being involved in the competition of grades, obviously relatable considering I’m not a robot. Thanks for the post – it was a quick, but enjoyable read.


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