Slightly Behind - The Best Place to Compete?


My brothers, identical twins, are a year older than I am. I also have two younger sisters. That gives me lifelong membership to the Fraternity of Middle Kids.

As a middle kid, I occasionally whined to my parents about being overlooked and ignored. They always patiently replied, "Stop being ridiculous, Anthony." I yelled back, "It's Andy!"

OK, OK, that last part's a joke – but all kidding aside, I'm not the only middle kid who ever griped about feeling attention-deprived. Over the years, I've met plenty of others who could identify with me.

In talking with other middle kids, I've observed another shared characteristic. As adults, they're almost all fighters with a strong competitive drive. Just like me, many felt the need to work a little harder to garner the same attention as their first and last born siblings.

Finally, I found some research that backs my observations and may offer insight to help sales managers stoke the competitive fire in the bellies of ALL their reps.

In the latest Harvard Business Review "Defend Your Research" section, there's a reprint of an interview with Wharton School of Business marketing professor, Jonah Berger. He explains that his research reveals people compete harder when they're slightly behind (just like a middle kid). The methods and results of his research were quite convincing.

His findings state, "People who are slightly behind in a competition are more likely to win than those who are slightly ahead." He says, "Bonus structures typically reward the best performers. Our research shows there are better ways to motivate people."

If Berger's research holds up, what are some ways to apply his findings to your sales team?

Here are a few ideas:

Leapfrog incentives. 

Typically, sales incentives are awarded for reaching defined milestones or being the top performer. Imagine if sales managers incentivized sales reps just for outselling the rep in front of them. That way, your 20th place performer might be more motivated to improve based on the achievable goal of beating the numbers of your 19th performer.

Weeklong Contests.

Every once in a while, hold a weekly contest. Whoever closes the most business that week or whoever is the first to land a sizable contract before the week's end gets a big prize. Make sure the prize is good - an iPad, football tickets, or a Kindle Fire. This type of contest levels the playing field so under-performers have the chance to dig it out for a week and win.

Incentivize 2nd Place. 

Challenge your 2nd and 3rd place performers to overtake your top seller. Offer them a special incentive if they dethrone the leader in the specified period of time. To make it fair, inform your top seller that if they remain the leader after the challenge ends, they get the bonus instead.

Alternative Incentives.

Shake up your top leader by offering incentives for those who are first to a new vertical, capture the most twitter followers, or deliver their personal ezine first.

Target a Nemesis.

Offer double commissions for a period for stealing work from a competitor. This incentive puts your top performers, some of which may be on cruise control, in the slightly behind position and may kickstart that competitive drive again.

Professor Berger's research makes sense and may have some practical and powerful applications to sales, though I wonder how much his research cost the university. To discover that those who are slightly behind compete harder, all he had to do was to ask a middle kid.

Do you think Jonah Berger's research nails it? What ideas do you have for pumping up your competitive drive? Post your comment!