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Office Rivals? Keeping Workplace Competition Friendly

Office Rivals? Keeping Workplace Competition Friendly
Credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Competition can be healthy because it encourages people to excel in their work, and it can even make your job more exciting. But sometimes, rivalries can get out of hand and cause turmoil in the office.

In an article for Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone noted that most people are uncomfortable with competitiveness.

"Because these feelings often feel unacceptable to us, we tend to ward them off or disguise them in ways that can be hurtful to ourselves and to others," Firestone said. "When we suppress these feelings, we leave them to fester and impact us in a variety of negative ways."

According to a 2014 study from Monster, the majority of U.S. workers say the competition they have with co-workers or bosses has hurt their job performance. Of those surveyed, 55 percent of those who have a workplace rivalry said it has created undue stress and reduced their productivity, and 20 percent said it has gotten them into trouble with management.

Just 6 percent of those surveyed said competing with someone in the office inspires them to do their best work. [See Related Story: Quiz: What's Your Collaboration Style?]

Some rivalries get so bad that employees look for work elsewhere. Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed have considered leaving their jobs because of office rivals, the study found.

Because companies work hard to hire the best talent available, rivalries are bound to occur when similarly skilled and motivated individuals work together, said Mary Ellen Slayter, a career advice expert for Monster. However, identifying what motivates employees and fostering healthier competition may help managers curb the negative feelings that may arise from people who get overly competitive.

"Balance is key," Slayter said. "Let workplace competition motivate you to perform your best, but don't get distracted by jealousy."

There are ways to encourage healthy competition among employees. Of those surveyed by Monster, employees named a few ways they deal with a workplace rival who causes them stress, including working hard and focusing on their goals, talking about the situation with their managers, and learning new skills to outshine the competition.

"Research tells us that people are less motivated by extrinsic factors [competition, cash rewards] and more motivated by intrinsic factors," Gal Rimon, founder and CEO of GamEffective, a gamification company,"Additionally, extrinsic factors may create a sudden spike in performance, but intrinsic factors are more likely to generate a long-term behavioral change."

Rimon noted that this type of influence contributed to the success of 2014's viral ALS ice bucket challenge. "The challenge isn't an outright competition," he said, "but it certainly is a case where people are influenced by others."

To encourage healthy competition, Rimon suggested having employees set goals for themselves. People will compare their performance to a "benchmarked" performance of someone at their level. It's sort of like how fitness trackers may encourage people to move more.

"If you count steps, you're going to walk more," Rimon said. "So if you get real-time feedback about your job performance, you are going to do better. The same drive can be leveraged by having managers set goals that employees can track in real time, relative to themselves, channeling that intrinsic drive." 

If there are still negative feelings and a toxic atmosphere? Slayter advised employees to counter competitive tensions by finding common ground through sports, shared hobbies or just having a drink after hours.

"If you can't get the tension under control, find ways to distance yourself from your adversary," Slater said. "Explore your options — from switching desks to switching companies — and remember that living, and working, well is the best revenge."

Additional reporting by Chad Brooks. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Shannon Gausepohl

Shannon Gausepohl graduated from Rowan University in 2012 with a degree in journalism. She has worked at a newspaper and in the public relations field. Shannon is a zealous bookworm, has her blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, and loves her Blue Heeler mix, Tucker.