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Competition: A Training Tool to Use Very Carefully

After lunch, I decided to design a short competition into a recent training session to make sure my audience stayed awake. I accidentally awoke a monster.

I broke the group up into two teams. I gave each team a marker and a flipchart. I gave them two minutes to list as many concepts as they could remember about the topic we had covered before lunch. Instead of the post-lunch lull, the room was abuzz with activity, excitement and urgency.

After each team presented the list of concepts they had generated, one team was declared the winner and we moved on to the next activity.

Later that afternoon we needed to come up with a common definition of one of our concepts. I thought the group was too large to try to come up with a common definition and to involve everyone in the process, so I asked participants to return to the two teams they had been in during the post-lunch competition. Each team was asked to come up with a definition, then we’d come together in the large group and wordsmith until we all came to a common definition.

When it came time for the large group to come together and wordsmith, each team staked out their territory and the old battle lines of competition were drawn again. The team that did not win earlier was especially motivated to try to come up with a “winning” definition. Neither team seemed very interested in appreciating and using aspects from the other team’s definition.

In the end, we came up with a solid definition that everyone was happy with, but the “us vs. them” mentality of competition that had been introduced earlier in the afternoon seemed to have a lasting and unintended impact. As I reflected on this experience, I still believe that fostering a competitive spirit during certain times of a training program can be helpful (even in this example, it helped power us through the post-lunch lull). But I also think there are three keys to the productive use of friendly training competition activities:

  1. Incentives And Prizes Aren’t Necessary

I offered the winning team a package of full-sized Hershey’s chocolate bars. After the competition was over, participants were looking for extrinsic rewards (chocolate) every time they were asked to participate. I’ve come to realize that in training programs, bragging rights are often the best prize. Without tangible rewards, participants seek to participate to add value (and get their own bragging rights) going forward. With prizes such as chocolate, people sometimes stop participating when they don’t have any hope for additional rewards.

  1. Clear Transition Away From Competition Is Necessary For Closure

If I could do it over again, I still would have broken the group up in half to ensure everyone’s voice was heard in coming up with a common definition, though I would have changed the group up so new teams were formed. When I put them back into the same groups, the tendency to reach back into the “us vs. them” mentality was only natural. Changing the groups would have been a physical symbol that we were done competing.

  1. Sometimes Collaboration Is Even Better Than Competition

In hindsight, I could have just asked every learner to grab a stack of post-its and to individually write every concept from the morning that they could remember within a two minute time limit. Perhaps we could have set the goal to be: let’s see if, as a group, we can remember 25 different concepts from the morning. Perhaps this could have created a “we’re all in this together” attitude that would have been much more helpful with the remainder of the day.

What’s your view about pitting individuals or teams against one another in competition during training events?

The Train Like A Champion Blog is published Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  If you think someone else might find this interesting, please pass it along.  If you don’t want to miss a single, brilliant post, be sure to click “Follow”!  And now you can find sporadic, 140-character messages from me on Twitter @flipchartguy.

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