Whether the person takes credit for your work, always looks for ways to position themselves better to come out on top or finds fault with your work, no doubt at some stage in your career, you’ve worked with the overly competitive type.
The need to compete can be personality-based, arise due to how a person has been socialised or influenced by the organisation’s culture.
I’ve worked with consultants whose firm’s mantra was ‘up or out’. What that meant in practice is that if they weren’t ready for promotion (as assessed by the senior partners each year), they would be fired. It created a horrible culture where there was little to no collaboration. As one consultant said to me once, “Why collaborate and help your colleague when that could lead them to be promoted – not you?”
I’ve also worked with individuals who saw everyone around them as competition, making it hard to trust their motives. And there were times during my corporate career when I fell into the trap of being overly competitive too.
However, competition isn’t all bad. It’s a balance.
Competition spurs progress
The creative genius Walt Disney said, “I’ve been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it“.
Healthy competition inspires change and drives progress. The space race spurred on during the Cold War is a perfect example. While the Cold War was a stressful and uncertain time, this competition between the then-Soviet Union and the United States to put the first man on the moon resulted in new technologies and scientific advancements that we rely on today.
The Renaissance period, which ran from the 14th – the 17th century, saw competition among artists and thinkers, leading to the creation of some of the world’s most celebrated pieces of art and literature.
For leaders today, it’s about using competitive forces to propel the organisation to new performance levels instead of adopting a winning-at-all-costs mindset, which can promote unethical and unhealthy behaviours. In approaching competition from a ‘winning well’ behavioural style, leaders create a collaborative and values-driven environment. In such an environment, the organisation strives for outcomes that are sustainable and consider the needs of all involved.
At an individual level, while healthy competition can motivate, being overly competitive with others can have negative consequences.
Being fixated on winning and consistently outperforming others can lead to high-stress levels and burnout. You can engage in risky behaviour and actions that don’t align with your values. You can also become your own harshest critic, and your inner voice, which voices negative thoughts, can be on overdrive. When that happens, any joy you had from your working day evaporates.
Putting your needs front and centre, you can sidestep the feelings of others and ignore their legitimate needs. Consequently, your colleagues and peers can stop trusting you, wanting to collaborate or share ideas and be disinclined to work with you. At the same time, you can harbour feelings of jealousy and resentment towards those perceived as more successful. All of which create a toxic and harmful working environment.
Reframe the competition
Many years ago, I read the story about Katarina Witt, Debi Thomas, and Elizabeth Manley at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Katarina Witt, from East Germany, was the reigning Olympic champion and a two-time world champion. Debi Thomas, from the United States, was the current world champion and defeated Witt at the World Championships the previous year. Elizabeth Manley, from Canada, was a relative newcomer to international competition.
In the free skate, Manley delivered the performance of a lifetime, nailing all her jumps and connecting with the audience. She came second overall. But what’s interesting is that she was never considered a contender. She wasn’t expected to win, so she just went out there and skated the performance of her life. And that was enough to excel. As she said then, “I was not expected to be here. The media didn’t expect me to be here. I didn’t expect me to be here. But I’m here.”
Sure, she was competing in a competition, but she also competed with herself to do her best. It’s a great reminder that sometimes the best competition is with ourselves.
Competing with yourself
When you compete with yourself, you don’t become fixated on what other people are doing; you set the direction and speed. You put yourself in the driver’s seat and control your progress, setting meaningful goals rather than focusing on the progress of others.
Research shows that when people focus on their own progress and improvement, they experience a greater sense of control and self-motivation, which leads to increased success.
This approach also helps you maintain your motivation and develop a growth mindset. As Carol Dweck, a renowned psychologist (whom I have referenced before), explains in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, a growth mindset is the belief that one’s abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. When individuals focus on improving themselves, they adopt such a growth mindset, which helps them to view challenges as opportunities for growth and to persevere in the face of obstacles.
Research also suggests that when you focus on self-improvement, you are happier and healthier, than when you focus on outperforming others.
It is worth noting, however, that there is research that suggests that women and men view competition differently and that women are typically less competitive than men. This can be a detriment, so it’s important to be able to identify where a lack of competitive spirit may be holding you back.
Healthy competition can be a great motivator and push us to achieve our goals. But we don’t want our measure of success to be how we compare to others. So, what are the warning signs that your competitive approach is becoming unhealthy?
Know the warning signs
If winning is the only thing that matters to you, and you become overly focused on achieving victory (to the exclusion of everything else), it’s a clear sign you’ve gone too far.
When you take this approach, everything becomes about you and what you need. You step over the needs and feelings of others. You may even cheat, lie, or break the rules to come out on top. You don’t have to look too far in history to see perfect examples of this occurring.
When you start to experience high levels of anxiety or stress or the thought of not being the best fills you with dread or panic, those are also warning signs. If you’ve reached this point, you are likely also obsessing about comparison. The comparison game is never a good place to be. There’s always going to be someone smarter, faster, better looking or whatever criteria you are using. When you start comparing yourself to others and feel inadequate, it will (in time) erode your self-esteem. There’s much research on the damage that low self-esteem does (too much to cover in this article).
In short, these factors will ultimately leave you feeling unhappy, and cause tensions or conflict at a personal and professional level.
As the famous American former football quarterback, Roger Staubach said, “Winning isn’t getting ahead of others, it is getting ahead of yourself”
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.