How to Handle Competition in the Workplace

How to Handle Competition in the Workplace


A bit of competition can be a good thing. Whether it's in sports or school, it can push you to work a bit harder, reach a little higher and achieve things you didn't think you were capable of. And in the workplace, from telemarketing positions to office jobs, the notion of healthy competition is nothing new. Of course, law firms and consulting companies are known for their competitive ranking systems in which the best associates are promoted to partner and have to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Those who don't make partner and even those who do but don't bring in enough business are politely requested to seek employment elsewhere. What's more, according to the Harvard Business Review in 2012, increasingly more industries that traditionally have high turnovers - for example retail, call centers and hospitality - are fostering competitive environments.

It's clear that when balanced with mutual respect, healthy competition can inspire you to accomplish increasingly better work. However, when the workplace is infused with unhealthy competition, the situation becomes stressful. And with the recent recession and subsequent massive job losses, most workers are already uncertain about their futures and don't need additional stress from a competitive colleague. Remember, stress and feelings of discomfort more often than not result in loss of productivity and lower quality work. After all, if you're constantly on the defensive and fighting to maintain your position, it can undermine your physical and emotional health as well as compromise your performance.

Unfortunately, you usually don't get to choose your colleagues, and leaving a position should be motivated by the opportunity to advance, not by a lack of collegiality among your co-workers.  So how can you handle competition in the workplace?

  • Look in the mirror. Before assuming a colleague is being overly competitive, it's important to consider yourself first. Though it might be the last thing you want to do when you're stressed out, you should take a moment to objectively evaluate your own performance. If you're not doing as well as you should be and you're blaming your colleague for your underperformance, acknowledge it. Then up your game in order to remain competitive in a healthy way.
  • Assess the workload and division of tasks. As members of a team, you and your colleague have both individual and shared responsibilities. Assess whether your colleague is taking on more than his or her fair share, and if so, speak up and claim your share of the work. With a balanced division of tasks, both of you will have the opportunity to showcase your talents.
  • Collaborate on shared goals. If you're both working toward the same goal, it makes no sense to undermine each other with excessive rivalry. Discuss with your colleague how you can divide responsibilities and coordinate results in order to maximize both of your strengths.
  • Show your appreciation.Psychology Today states that many overly competitive people have fragile self-esteems that fluctuate according to their most recent accomplishments and the admiration of others. If you truly believe that your colleague is doing a good job, say so. It will most likely make him or her feel more confident and foster a more relaxed interaction.
  • Maintain a high quality of work at all times. With an overachiever in the next cubicle, you don't want your work to look shoddy - even if it isn't. Use the competition to produce a higher quality of work than ever before, but refrain from taking on too much work or agreeing to unrealistic deadlines. The only way you can consistently produce high-level work is to not spread yourself thin. So even if your colleague can handle multiple projects at once, don't automatically feel that you have to.
  • Protect yourself and your information. Unfortunately, unhealthy competition can turn nasty and involve a whole range of office politics nobody in their right minds would want to be embroiled in. Password-protect your computer and devices as well as your documents to make sure nobody can steal your work and claim it as their own. Keep records of your contributions, and regularly inform your boss of your achievements.
  • Talk to your boss. If matters don't improve, talk to your boss and make sure to back up your claims with documented facts. He or she may bring in Human Resources to mediate and find a solution that works for everybody.

Keep the above tips in mind when dealing with an overly competitive colleague. That way, you can use the competition to improve both your and your team's contributions while still protecting yourself if matters escalate.