If you’ve ever held a medal, trophy, or ribbon in your hand after a hard-fought win, you know the feeling of accomplishment it can bring, as well as that boost in self-confidence. We face competition in many aspects of our lives, but outside of athletic pursuits, it tends to be most noticeable in the workplace, where promotions, awards, and approval from higher-ups are considered things we should strive for. Some competition can be healthy, but too much or the wrong kinds of competition can result in toxic work environments where no one wins.
There is such a thing as positive workplace competition. This exists mostly when the competition involves teamwork, collaboration, and problem solving in a group format. Teams can be competing against one another in the same department, against teams from other areas of the company, or against employees from competing businesses.
Another key to positive workplace competition is an even playing field. When employees are being compared to others who don’t do the same type of work as they do, or who have more experience or a higher skill level than they do, it results in a less-than-ideal situation where certain competitors have a leg up on the other players in the game. Grouping employees into tiers based on skill level, position, seniority, and performance can help to eliminate any unfair advantages anyone might have, which should ensure that no one feels cheated or left out.
The type of reward at stake can also play a huge role in whether or not the workplace competition is going to be beneficial to employees. Often, rewards like cash or ‘things’ result in short-term increases in productivity and work quality, but these usually taper off after a while. Long-term benefits from workplace competition are more likely to be seen when the rewards involve recognition and appreciation from leaders in a public way (announced in meetings or published on the company website, for example).
Read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us to learn more about the connection between motivation and reward.
Overall, however, the most significant positive competition at work happens when an employee competes against themself, striving to do bigger and better things over time. Monitoring this through regular reviews and having goals that are easy to track can keep employees engaged and focused on doing their absolute best.
Competition at work can also lead to unwanted situations or cultures. As mentioned above, pitting people against each other when there are clear advantages and disadvantages for certain competitors can result in bitterness or employees simply checking out. Considering the differences between feeling challenged and feeling threatened can go a long way in preventing negative competitive environments.
Employees who feel challenged will likely rise to the occasion to take part in some healthy competition, improving their work and more frequently interacting with their co-workers in a positive manner. Once they feel threatened, however, employees might start to react in ways that could hurt the company rather than take it to the next level.
Not every employee will deal with competition the same way. Some will experience anxiety about having to perform their roles based on doing better than everyone else, while some will take the competition too far and do whatever they can to win, possibly knocking others down in the process. Other employees will simply be indifferent and not change much about the way they work at all.
The Lone Competitor
Sometimes workplace competition isn’t initiated by the company, but rather, there is one hyper-competitive person looking to take centre stage. These employees can play dirty, looking for ways to undermine their co-workers, such as withholding information, snooping through others’ work or belongings, placing blame on co-workers when something goes wrong, and generally spending their energy on negative competitive behaviour. This can be distracting and detrimental for other employees, and usually indicates an employee who is dealing with low self-esteem or other issues.
Healthy workplaces will often end up exposing these types of employees over time and will either work with them to ensure positive changes are made, or show them the door. This can sometimes take a while, however, so employees affected by this negative behaviour can look to a few strategies for dealing with an overly competitive co-worker.
The most important step is to focus on yourself and resist becoming distracted by the person. Doing your best each day and looking for opportunities for personal and professional development can keep you grounded and moving toward your desired career path. This can also involve looking to a mentor, within or outside of your company, to steer you in the right direction.
In interactions with the overly competitive co-worker, staying positive, complimenting them on their accomplishments, and presenting yourself as someone non-threatening can sometimes help curb their competitive behaviour. Sometimes, more strategy is needed to protect yourself, such as keeping your conversations to the point, not revealing too much information about yourself or your work, and being assertive when necessary to show that you aren’t afraid to stand up for yourself.
If things really take a turn for the worst, password protecting your computer and files and locking up your belongings might be necessary. At that point, you should approach your boss about the situation and be clear with him or her about what’s been going on. Document your ideas, contributions, and work, keep notes on incidents involving the competitive co-worker, and present to your boss the ways in which you’ve tried to resolve the situation yourself.
There are good and bad types of competition in the workplace, and employees will be either encouraged by the competition or it will bring out some of their less-desirable qualities. Keeping the competition fair, relevant, and fun is important, and healthy workplaces will be able to do so, reaping the rewards. Employees dealing with a single hyper-competitive co-worker have a few strategies they can implement before turning to their boss for help.