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Free-market competition drives the American capitalist society, forcing companies to improve products and services while keeping prices in check. But does competition help or hinder a company's performance when it is encouraged among workers within the same company?

Tom Fletcher, researcher and doctoral candidate in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., has conducted extensive research on competition in the workplace. His most recent study focuses on the effects of intra-firm competition on organizational behavior.

"In an individualistic society such as the United States, many believe that competition is not only pervasive, but also a must for increasing motivation," said Fletcher.

Using a sample of college students working at least 30 hours per week, Fletcher and his research team demonstrated the negative consequences of a competitive climate at work. The results were also replicated by a sample of information technology workers across various organizations.

"The relationships between competitive climate and organizational variables such as job satisfaction, stress and commitment to the organization, among others, depend on whether or not the individual is high or low in competitiveness," explained Fletcher. Participants revealed their personal trait through statements like "I enjoy working in situations involving competition," or "It is important to me that I outperform others on a task."

One example of a competitive psychological climate is when a manager frequently compares a worker's performance to the performance of coworkers, or when coworkers themselves compare their own performance to that of others. "Basically, in this atmosphere people are pitted against one another," said Fletcher. "As perceptions of competition rise, levels of satisfaction and commitment decrease for both low and high competitors, however, the negative effects are greater for low competitors," he continued.

Individuals low in competitiveness, especially, begin to shut down within the competitive environment and actually reduce the amount of effort they will exert. Both high- and low- level competitors experienced higher levels of stress as the competitive climate increased. "Interestingly, individuals low in competitiveness report moderate to high amounts of stress no matter the level of competition," said Fletcher.

Fletcher received his master's degree in industrial/organizational psychology in 2002 from Old Dominion and his bachelor's in psychology and political science in 1999 from Georgia State University.

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