If you’ve felt your workplace has become more cutthroat over the past decade, you’re not alone. The Muse found that a third of managers and employees were more competitive with their co-workers than they were 10 years ago. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a full two-thirds felt their workplaces were competitive.
The flip side, however, is that 43 percent said they would leave their employers if the workplace became too competitive. Competition can push employees to perform at a higher level than they might otherwise, and seeing how others handle situations and projects can broaden an entire team’s perspective. But Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing,” found that 25 percent of employees wilt under competitive pressure. There’s a fine line between “motivating” and “demoralizing.”
How can you navigate your career without succumbing to the pressure?
Increased Output, Increased Tension
Companies have always encouraged staff to “do more with less.” But what should be a short-term focus on output often becomes a longer-term strategy. Turning a sprint into a marathon comes at a price, says Ron Rael, CPA, CGMA, and the founder of leadership consulting firm the High Road Institute. “We’ve been running so lean for so long that it’s starting to hurt companies profitability-wise, morale-wise, culture-wise. And, more importantly,” he says, “employees are starting to get burned out.”
When employees maintain a hectic pace, they end up sick more often, resulting in higher insurance bills for companies, more sick days, and reduced productivity. Combine that with feeling like they’re being pitted against their co-workers to produce more or work longer hours, and morale suffers. Sixty-three percent have actually taken promotions without pay raises, and Monster career expert Vicki Salemi says this is because employees are jostling for visibility, growth, and opportunities, not just money.
Isa Watson, the founder and CEO of workplace engagement platform Envested, says she’s seen increased tension between co-workers in recent years. “There’s a higher expectation for employee output — tech and tools allow us to be more efficient in our roles, and the more you can do with less, the more rewards you earn,” she says.
The Dangers of Engaging — or Failing to Do So
Watson says that engaging in competition can negatively reinforce bad ideas about how people should be managed — if an employee works 80 hours a week to gain access to the best opportunities, she may, but she may also find herself in a cycle of intense work with no payoff. “But if you don’t engage, it can potentially limit you,” Watson acknowledges. “Managers are sensitive to employee motivation, and they want to hire employees willing to work.”
Bosses can view an unwillingness to compete as a lack of interest in the job, and this can impact future opportunities. And how do bosses and co-workers view leaderboards, rankings, or other “approved” competitions in the workplace? Perception is often reality in these situations, although there are exceptions: Companies that do “forced rankings” — meaning rankings have to be parsed out, even among a group of high performers — often elicit more empathy from leaders. They know how their team members are truly performing, regardless of the numbers.
But these rankings do go into employees’ HR files, meaning prospective managers could see them, for better or worse. This can play a role in attaining a longed-for promotion or gaining an opportunity on a visible project. And with co-workers not having the same level of big-picture perspective as bosses, they often label their colleagues according to the rankings they’ve been awarded.
Getting Away from a Zero-Sum Game When Increasing Competitiveness
The problem is that competition is often seen as a zero-sum game: There’s a scarce amount of something (money, promotions, projects) available, and employees need to fight to secure it. But companies with innovative perspectives and talented employees create more opportunities for themselves, meaning employees who want to succeed should take an abundant approach instead.
Watson says there are three other things employees can do to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world:
Identify multiple sponsors.
Mentors are coaches who help individuals strengthen their skills to become more competitive, but sponsors are the people who make things happen: They expend their personal capital on your behalf behind closed doors. A strong sponsor whose opinions are taken seriously is a valuable asset — while many people believe promotions are based on merit, they’re often not.
To curate a sponsor, look at the company from a leadership perspective: Who makes key decisions? Make a habit of interacting with those who resonate with your work so they can represent it for you.
The more authentic you are, the more you’ll endear yourself to those around you. Trying hard to appear perfect and flawless does little to help others see you as a genuine human being with feelings and thoughts. Anjali Sud, the CEO of Vimeo, said, “As a woman in investment banking, I’d come from a culture where acknowledging mistakes or uncertainty was typically perceived as a sign of weakness. But I’ve since learned that practicing vulnerability is a sign of strength.”
Speak the way you normally would, and bring up your ideas. These are the elements that draw people in. Trying to present yourself the way you think others expect will make you feel robotic (and look that way, too).
Expand the scope of your work.
A lot of people double down on the work they do in their current role to get ahead. But being a superstar in your current role doesn’t always showcase your ability to take on a different one, especially when most leadership positions require a familiarity with multiple functions and skill sets. Instead, focus on developing horizontal skills and gaining exposure to new frames of thought — that way, when you see the role you want, you’ll be equipped for it. And having a breadth of perspectives makes you more valuable to the team.
Ask your boss for opportunities to gain experience in new areas. Volunteer yourself to go above and beyond to expand your skill set: Does that client work in an unfamiliar industry? Is that a manager you haven’t worked with yet?
Competition can make people nervous — but it can also make them better. By focusing on improving your skills and opportunities, you can redirect your attention to what serves you. Getting yourself where you want to go, after all, is much more important than getting ahead.