How many times have you been sitting in the back of the room in a classroom training seminar, checking your Blackberry under the table, praying for it to be over before you fall asleep? Did you learn anything? Well, when you got the final quiz, you were able to find the materials in the manual they handed out, so maybe you got everything you needed, right?

Clearly, this is a horrible learning environment. The next time workers trained in this manner are faced with a safety decision to make or problem to solve, they will be at the mercy of their instincts. This needs to change. We need an environment that both draws the interest and attention of the attendees and maximizes their ability to retain and recall the material that is covered. This can be accomplished through the strategic use of competition. We all have experienced the visceral attraction of competition. But doing it in a way that facilitates learning is easier said than done.

One caveat that I need to emphasize is that not all competition is good competition. There can be serious consequences for applying it ignorantly. This article will take you through the process of creating productive competition and tell you how to sidestep the danger points that you may face along the way.

Create productive competition

First, think about how competition can improve the learning environment. There are really two reasons that competition works. The first is attention. We evolved to have an innate attraction to competition. We are curious to see who wins, even if we have no stake in the contest. If we do have a stake, it is an even more powerful draw. The twin cognitive phenomena of group identity and loss aversion create a sense where we affiliate with other members of our team and hate to lose, even when there are no consequences. When some kind of prize is on the line, it gets even stronger.

But this is the first danger point. The last thing we want to do is create an enduring competition that bleeds (literally) into the work environment and decreases the collaboration among our work teams on the shop floor. I have even seen examples where workers prank or even sabotage each other outside of the training room because of competitive feelings that trickle out. When creating the competing teams in a training environment, it is important to split up the shop floor teams. This gives you competition in the seminar that doesn’t leave the room. It also makes the competition more friendly, because workers have some colleagues and friends playing for the other teams.

Another benefit of the team format is that weak performers don’t give up based on the assumption that they can’t win. If the teams are evenly matched, everyone feels like they can win. Close matches increase the excitement of the competition. Trainees are invested in every question. Either their team or a competing team is playing at any given time, so they can cheer for their own team members and against the others.

The other reason that competition improves the learning environment is the reality that the most important and challenging safety decisions, when recalling the training materials is critical, are made under conditions of high arousal. Research has shown that it is easier to remember information when the stress during learning is about the same as the stress during recall.

But here is the second danger point. It is more complicated than just equal levels of stress. Competition increases the release of adrenaline and cortisol, activating a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is important in memory. The amygdala is involved in the attachment of emotions and values to memory. So if the amygdala will be activated when the information is needed, it should also be activated when the information is learned. When creating the competitive environment, you want to make sure that the level of emotion is similar to when you expect the trained information to be needed the most. Basic information doesn’t require competitive training environments, but key safety decision-making and problem-solving — where workers will be making tradeoffs and value judgments — often does.

And here’s the third danger point: Adrenaline and cortisol also activate another part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in two parts of memory. For about an hour, it helps to store new information. But after an hour, it switches to organizing and attaching the information to existing cognitive mental models so that it can be remembered later at the right time in the right place. So the competition should last no more than an hour.

One effective method I have used is to conduct a two-hour training seminar either before lunch or at the end of the day. In the first hour, workers are provided with basic information that they need to remember or look up during normal calm facility operations. Then the second hour is competitive, where you drum in the critical decisions, problems and value tradeoffs. Using cases, scenarios and role-playing during this competition makes it even more memorable. Then trainees have time off when the new learning can be consolidated.

Implementation techniques

To maximize the feelings of group identity and competitive instincts, create teams that balance the talent and split up the existing work groups. Also, have each team give itself a name. This may sound trivial, but it significantly increases competitive feelings. I have found that two to four teams is ideal depending on the size of the total group.

The phenomenon of loss aversion can be exploited by running the competition in streaks. A trainee gets to answer questions consecutively until they get one wrong. As they are on the hot seat, they get to hold a prop like a scepter or gavel. This can be selected based on the industry or the culture of the organization. The impulse for loss aversion means that the trainee on the hot seat will try extra hard to avoid having to give up this prop to another team. To facilitate the idea of streaks but still divide up the participation among the teams, you want to use questions that the trainee can answer correctly perhaps 50-75 percent of the time. Not so hard that streaks never develop but not so easy that one person can hog the prop the entire competition. Streaks also bring intensity, with everyone wondering when the trainee will get one wrong and “bust.” Game shows often use this technique to build excitement.

It also helps to have multiple props and to design the competition into units or rounds so that several teams can leave with a prize. This ensures that the maximum number of trainees leave with the positive feelings of being a winner. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive; the value comes from success in the competition.

A powerful tool

Competition can be a powerful tool to improve the effectiveness of safety training. Some of these details may seem obvious, but hopefully I have presented you with some of the nuances and danger points that will allow you to design training competitions that increase learning, increase context-specific recall, and protect your work teams from dangerous competitive pressures that leave the training room.