How An IT Leader Can Manage Competitive Arousal In Their Team

by drjim on October 15, 2008

Competition Can Change IT Workers Into Bad Decision Makers

Competition Can Change IT Workers Into Bad Decision Makers

It’s great to have an IT team that is full of go-getters. However, as with everything in life, sometimes teammates can be too competitive. When we let the heat of battle overcome our better judgement, then we’ve got a real problem. When this happens, we stand a very good chance of starting to make very bad decisions. Long after the competition has been resolved, we’ll still be living with the effects of those decisions and that can come back to haunt us over and over again.

Last time we discussed that rivalry, time pressure, and a bright spotlight of public attention can all contribute to making us become competitively arroused. This is how we start to make bad decisons. Given all of this, now lets spend some time talking about what can be done by IT leaders to manage competative arousal within their teams.

An IT leader can work to prevent problems by minimizing the potential for competitive arousal to occur in the first place by doing two things: avoiding the certain types of interaction that can lead to competition among teammates, and working to defuse the common risk factors that can lead to excessively competitive behavior.

In the first case, an IT leader needs to have the ability to think like a chess master and look into the future. He/she is looking to identify those interpersonal dynamic conditions that could lead to competitive arousal within their team. Once an IT leader has spotted these potentially volatile conditions, then they can step in and can work to restructure the deal making process into one that they believe will still lead to a successful outcome while not leading to a overly competitive situation.

Additionally, an IT leader needs to be constantly working to defuse the risk factors that may lead their teammates to enter into competitive arousal. There are three ways that this can be done:

  • Reduce Potential Rivalry: Luke Skywalker was motivated to overthrow the Empire at all costs because he saw it as being “evil”. When IT workers start to view rivals as being “bad”, or “evil” they can start to view winning as being required no matter what the cost. When this happens, the IT leader needs to identify who is feeling the greatest amount of rivalry and then limit their role. Another helpful approach is to do your homework before the competition begins. Clearly lay out how much you are willing to “lose” in order to “win”. Doing this before competitive arousal kicks in ensures a more rational decision will be reached.
  • Slow Down The Clock: In order to reduce the pressure that a ticking clock brings to the table, an IT leader needs to search for ways to stop the clock or at least to extend its window of time. Deadlines are almost always too short in which to complete the work. Extending or eliminating them is a key IT leader job.
  • Dimming The Public Spotlight: A great way to take the burden of meeting public expectations off the shoulder of individual IT staffers is to spread the decision making responsibility across multiple members. This isn’t a perfect solution, but it go a long way towards reducing the stress felt by individual team members.

Although it’s not often that the IT leader is the one who is getting caught up in a competitive situation, he/she does play a key role. The ability to anticipate that a member of the department is going to enter into a rivalry situation, come under time pressure, or get caught in a spotlight is part of an IT leader’s job. In the end, we all overestimate just how rational, careful, and even logical that we are in high pressure situation. It’s the role of an IT leader to save us from making bad decisions when we find ourselves there.

Have you ever had to diffuse a rivalry situation within your department? Did you see it before it became a problem or did you have to react after things started to get bad? Have you ever been able to remove a deadline that was causing your team to start to make bad decisions? Leave a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Busy Owner June 16, 2009 at 3:57 pm


I’m the owner of an IT firm, and my top and trusted technical resource and partner has recently been in competition with the IT manager of an organization and customer of mine. I admit that I do not know where the competition began, or for how long. In fact, I knew there were issues, and have been continuously coaching my resource to resolve issues… I didn’t realize it was a competition until reading your posting.

Nevertheless, although I’ve always been involved I have recently increased my involvement, continuing to focus on improving the relationship between our organizations. More and more I’m putting myself in the forefront and diverted the tough questions and responses from my lead resource to myself. Simultaneously I’ve added the role of Customer (focused) Representative to my resource’s set of many hats. This has helped him gain a new perspective, that causes him to proactively seek the customers best interest (more so than in the past) while focusing on the correct technical solutions, processes, best practices and overseeing and managing my team.

However, the IT manager has not changed his offensive frontal. In fact, he is requesting services (pressing his demands) that are out side the scope of our contract. While he has never seen the contract, he is in the position to suggest changes, and is eager to flex and wield his POWER.

In preparation and anticipation of conflict, I’ve been increasing communications with the director of the organization, keeping everything out in the open; sharing my challenges and my desires to see our organizations continue to grow in our relationships and partnering to solve the technology challenges that we have.

My point is this… I’m the owner of a small IT firm, therefore I’m a manager, customer service representative, and a whole lot more. My challenge is that one of the parties in competition is not my resource, but is in the position to ‘suggest’ how the future of my firm and his organization may look like.

I have lots of other ideas and thoughts on my mind, but this brings me to date to the recent activities and the current state of relationships in my business world.

Generally speaking, business is good, and relationships are still strong… but there is no doubt, managing people, a.k.a. relationships, takes lots of continuous work… (like taking care of a well manicured lawn, it takes hard work, persistence and commitment).


Dr. Jim Anderson June 16, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Busy Owner: Oh my! You have quite a situation on your hands – so much for the joy of being in charge! A couple of quick thoughts: often when competition occurs, the parties involved may not even be aware of it – they are just automatically reacting. Putting yourself in between your partner and your customer was exactly the right thing to do. It appears as though your customers still wants to compete with SOMEONE, ANYONE!

What has worked for me in the past is to take the time to fully understand his requests – listen, write them down, run them by him to make sure that you correctly understood what he is requesting. Once you are sure that you know what he wants, then sit down with him again and explain that he can get what he wants, but that is is new work. If you have a price ready for each of his requests, you can put him in the driver’s seat and ask him which tasks he is willing to pay for. By making him the decision maker, you remove yourself from the loop if he can’t get what he wants – he’ll only have his budget to blame! Good luck.


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