Having healthy rivalries with outside competitors could be a way to boost productivity around the office, new research shows.

People can recover from poor performance when rivals comment on their business failures, the study discovered. Specifically, while criticism from team members sends individuals into downward performance spirals, external criticism can be a trigger that boosts performance as people try to prove the outsiders wrong, it was found.

"Careful management of performance following failure is of key importance in a range of areas such as sport and business," said Tim Rees, the study's lead author, from the University of Exeter, in England. "The study shows that simple, low-cost measures that exploit the effects of intergroup dynamics can reverse downward performance spirals by encouraging a 'them and us' mentality."

As part of the study, blindfolded participants threw darts at a dartboard and then received poor-performance feedback from either a university-affiliated researcher or from an external researcher from a rival university.

The researchers found that if a participant received discouraging feedback from a university-affiliated researcher, the participant failed at the next attempt, but if it was encouraging, the participant improved. While receiving encouragement from a member of an external team following a poor performance did not help individuals improve at their next attempt, those who received the poor-performance feedback from an outsider were motivated to try and prove them wrong.

"Downward performance spirals can be readily observed in every domain of human performance," said co-author Jessica Salvatore of Amherst College. "Our research shows that the 'us-versus-them' mindset isn't always a destructive force — sometimes it can be the key to re-motivating yourself and turning your performance around."

Co-author Pete Coffee, from the University of Stirling, in Scotland, said the research not only highlights ways to improve performance, but also demonstrates the positive and negative impact that encouragement and criticism from fellow group members can have.

"This work points to the need for people like sports coaches and business leaders to think carefully about the way they deliver performance-related feedback," Coffee said.

The study, by the researchers from Amherst College and the universities of Exeter and Stirling, is scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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