How do you Handle Office Competition?
Every office has at least one—the hypercompetitive employee who’s out to win at all costs.
These adversarial types go beyond striving for success. They turn every endeavor into a competition, whether it is intended to be or not, psychologists say. And they spark strong reactions in colleagues, from fighting back to just shutting down.
Competition is often healthy and encouraged at work, of course. People who compete in a healthy way see it as a route to developing their skills, reaching shared goals, staying motivated and thriving on the job.
Research on hypercompetitors sets them apart. Intense rivalry is linked with a win-at-any-cost mind-set and a tendency to ignore the perspectives and decisions of others, according to a 2010 study at Harvard University. Other research shows highly competitive people focus on attaining status over getting work done, and readily put their own interests above others’.
How we react to competition varies widely. People may be conditioned by childhood experiences to see a hypercompetitive colleague as a challenge—and to respond by trying harder—or as a threat, triggering a retreat into fear and anxiety.
Healthy or Hyper?
How competitive are you? To find out, answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to the following questions.
- 1. Winning in competition makes me feel more powerful as a person.
- 2. I do not see my opponents in competition as my enemies.
- 3. I like competition because it teaches me a lot about myself.
- 4. I can’t stand to lose an argument.
- 5. Competition can lead to forming new friendships with others.
- 6. Failure or loss in competition makes me feel less worthy as a person.
- 7. It doesn’t bother me to be passed by someone while I am driving on the roads.
- 8. Competition does not help me develop my abilities.
- 9. Success in athletic competition does not make me feel superior to others.
- 10. If I can disturb my opponent in some way to get the edge, I will do so.
Scoring: Answering ‘true’ to questions 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9 and 10 reveals a tendency toward hypercompetitiveness. Those who answer ‘true’ only to 3, 5 and 8 tend to have a healthy attitude toward competition.
Source: Richard Ryckman et al., Journal of Personality Assessment.
It is rooted partly in genetics: Scientists have identified a “warrior” variant of a gene linked to performance under pressure, which confers an advantage in threatening situations, and a “worrier” variant linked to poor performance, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest.
These tendencies shape early decision-making. College students who are competitive by nature tend to aim toward competitive jobs, such as coaching, according to a 2015 study led by John M. Houston, a psychology professor at Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla. Those who are less competitive train for more collaborative jobs, such as school counseling.
People who become anxious and shy away from hypercompetitors in the workplace often hurt their own performance, says Shelley Reciniello, a New York psychologist and author of “The Conscious Leader.” After a rival confronted one executive with a harsh critique of her speaking skills, “she lost her footing. It started to get to her,” and the executive began stumbling during presentations, Dr. Reciniello says.
Such confrontations can stir a visceral response so powerful that it blindsides people, she says. “They know they feel angry, they feel sick, they feel sad. They find themselves having revenge fantasies,” Dr. Reciniello says.
Equally at risk on the job are those who prefer to sit out any competition. “Some people don’t even want to compete,” says Steve Sims, chief product officer for Badgeville, a Redwood City, Calif., maker of gamelike motivational tools for the workplace. If you show such a person a leaderboard of the top 10 performers in the office, “that person will drop out.”
Patti Johnson first noticed a colleague’s hypercompetitive behavior when she was vying with the woman for a promotion years ago. She withheld information Ms. Johnson needed to do her job, and took credit with the boss for work they had done together, says Ms. Johnson, chief executive officer of PeopleResults, a Dallas human-resources and change-management consulting firm.
“I realized it was part of my job, to manage her,” Ms. Johnson says. She insisted the boss include her in meetings on joint projects and kept her boss well-informed about her contributions, she says. “I made it more and more difficult for her to throw tacks on the road.”
At times, the presence of super-competitive people can spur others to achieve more. Jay Bower says feeling overmatched early in his career by warrior types with Ivy League M.B.A.s drove him to study nights for 4½ years to get his M.B.A. too. Knowing he lacked skills his co-workers had “was kind of a searing experience for me,” says Mr. Bower, president of Crossbow Group, a Westport, Conn., marketing-services firm.
Deciding whether to confront an ultracompetitive colleague can be tricky. “It depends on the situation. You have to look at what you stand to lose,” says Susan Packard, author of “New Rules of the Game,” a book about how women can compete in the workplace. A little political maneuvering by a rival might not hurt much. But if a hypercompetitor starts interfering with your career goals, or with the funding or resources you need to do your job, you have to act, she says.
The first step is to be aware of your own reactions. Then, practice confronting co-workers, if necessary, to insist that they stop undercutting teammates or shared goals.
Gather specific examples of the hypercompetitor’s bad behavior and the reactions it caused. A hypercompetitor won’t understand what you’re asking unless you explain the behaviors that need to end, says Jessica Bigazzi Foster, a senior partner with RHR International, a Chicago leadership and business-psychology consulting firm. Prepare to explain how the behavior is hurting the business or the team.
Consider practicing what you plan to say with a friend, to help control your emotions, and write a script if necessary to keep the conversation on track, Dr. Reciniello says. Super-competitive people “will do everything to get you off point.”
Start on a positive note, says Elaine Varelas, managing partner of Keystone Partners, such as, “You’re very successful and I appreciate that. What I find very difficult in working with you is that you don’t share information.” Then give examples and describe the behavior you’d like in the future, she says.
Employees who are stuck with a hypercompetitive colleague may not get much help from the boss, at least at first. The dark side of a hypercompetitor often goes unnoticed because the boss “is seeing this aggressive, results-oriented person,” says Ralph Roberto, president of Keystone Partners, a Boston career-management consultant.
It can be tough for a boss to crack down on a hypercompetitive employee. Bill Fish sees competition as a motivator. When an aggressive sales agent at his company, ReputationManagement.com, accumulated an oversized roster of clients, he initially hesitated to take clients away from him, thinking the competition was fueling sales, says Mr. Fish, president of the Cincinnati provider of reputation-management services. “He wasn’t thinking about anybody else. At first, I really didn’t see it as a bad thing,” he says. After customers began to complain that the agent wasn’t responding quickly to their requests, however, he realized that the agent’s uber-competitiveness was hurting the business and made him share the load.
Hypercompetitive people tend to ignore their impact on others, so getting them to change often requires pointing out that they’re hurting themselves. David Hoffeld once managed a top-performing salesman who needled co-workers, saying, “Maybe you should work harder, because I’ve noticed I’m always higher than you on the leaderboard,” says Mr. Hoffeld, chief executive officer of a Minneapolis sales-training firm. “It didn’t spur his co-workers to work harder. It just made them angry.”
Mr. Hoffeld took the salesman aside and pointed out that he was alienating his co-workers, making them less willing to help him out on big projects in the future. The salesman changed his behavior.