Tradition has it that competition brings out the best in people. It helps them grow. Accept defeat. Learn humility. It promotes creativity and, in many cases, leads to innovation. That's why top companies, from Google to Thomas Reuters, use competition to bring out the best in their employees.

But put too much pressure on your employees, or push competition in the wrong way, and the culture of collaboration you've built starts to unravel. Fortunately, there are ways to make creative competition lead to a team-first rather than me-first mentality.

If you want to inspire your employees through competition, keep these six things in mind.

1. Stay in the Goldilocks zone.

In a culture that lacks competitiveness, employees aren't as encouraged to think outside the box. Too much competition, though, can be suffocating; it's a mindset that's hard to maintain 24/7. But find that sweet spot, where the level of competition is just right, and that's where the magic happens.

According to research by Daniel P. Gross, a fellow at Harvard Business School, engaging with one or two competitors puts your employees' creativity in the best spot for original and innovative ideas.

2. Structure to encourage team building.

Competition can still be collaborative. At Clayton Homes, one of America's largest home builders, team-based contests fashioned after fantasy football vastly improved performance, leading to a 200 percent increase in retail store visits tracked back to referrals from the sales team during the competition. These competitions improved the company's return and motivated coworkers to work together, coaching one another, and cheering on their peers.

3. Intentionally match pairs for performance.

Random pairings can be successful, but you also may benefit from strategically pairing coworkers for competitive endeavors. Whether you match high and low performers or the dedicated, long-time employee with the recent college grad, these competitions give you the ultimate opportunity to utilize mentorship and one-on-one coaching from your top workers. Plus, it allows more people to get involved, share ideas, and put on their creative caps.

4. Keep it simple. 

When your employees generate original ideas, it can do wonders for your business, opening the door to new customers and markets. But launching a new product or service, or even improving on current procedures, isn't always the easiest thing to do.

You don't always have to shoot for the sky, or reinvent the wheel. Follow the lead of Thomas Reuters, a global information solutions company. To get the chance to pitch their idea and get access to the company's catalyst fund (a pool of money used for rapid proof of concept), employee teams only need a two-page paper detailing the innovation, why it's valuable to their customers, and its potential market. Once they move on from this stage, then they begin working on a full proposal.

5. Provide the necessary resources.

Give employees the resources and mentors they need to launch their idea to the next level. At the Department of Health and Human Services, a federal organization that employs over 90,000 people nationwide, employees can form three to five person teams and propose solutions to problems facing their program, office, or agency. Through the HHS Ignite Accelerator, an internal innovation program, selected teams receive individual coaching and guidance, as well as access to the Department's leadership and innovation team.

You can follow suit at your company by offering internal classes, tutorials, and workshops, and allowing your employees to have access to top mentors and executives.

6. Make competition valuable.

The goal of work competition shouldn't be solely to boost the bottom line. Creative competitions should lead to skill development, and foster relationship-building between departments. If you are offering some sort of prize to winning individuals or teams, make sure that you aren't overemphasizing the reward; your team should buy in to your overall mission.

Published on: Nov 21, 2017