Too competitive? Careful it doesn’t bite you


Tough times bring out the need to win in workers. Instead of giving you an edge, the desire to beat others can backfire.
Araina Bond – Special to The Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Jan. 15, 2010 12:00AM EST Last updated on Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010 3:49AM EST

When a young account manager for a management consulting firm approached Toronto career coach Barbara Symmons for advice, she spotted his problem immediately.

“He was frustrated because he had recently brought in one of the largest accounts the company had ever landed, but he hadn’t been awarded the promotion he felt should be coming his way,” Ms. Symmons recalls. “In fact, despite his talent for bringing in lucrative accounts, he’d been told that he would probably never get the promotion he both coveted and felt he deserved.”

When he met with superiors to ask what had gone wrong, he got an earful: He wasn’t the only person responsible for the new account – co-workers had laid the groundwork. His bosses also pointed out his habit of always taking the lead but then behaving undemocratically, as well as his aggressive manner toward colleagues, which had a way of shutting people down. In short, he wasn’t a team player.

Ms. Symmons wasn’t surprised when results from a personality assessment she administered confirmed her suspicion: Her client topped the charts on competitiveness.

Tough times may be bringing out the competitive streak in workers fearing for their jobs. Many are working longer and harder, hoping they can prove themselves more indispensable than the person in the next cubicle.

When striving to do your best brings bigger accomplishments, competitiveness can provide an edge. But it can also produce nasty behaviour: hoarding resources, being overly aggressive, taking credit for others’ work and self-promotion at others’ expense.

That’s the kind of competitiveness that can work against you, the experts warn.

It’s the difference between what career expert Barbara Moses calls good and bad competitiveness. “In this kind of market, good competitiveness spurs people on to work that much harder. The motivation is excellence, working for the team – and being competitive in a healthy way can serve you well,” she says.

“It’s when you want to look after only your own interests that it turns into bad competitiveness,” adds Dr. Moses, a Globe and Mail columnist and the author of What Next? Find the Work That’s Right for You.

It’s the “the me-versus-we phenomenon,” Ms. Symmons says. “When competitiveness becomes your goal, you lose focus of the real goal – doing your job to the best of your ability – and you are out of alignment with both your own work and the company you are working for.”

An all-me attitude can produce short-term results, but “no matter how good you are at what you do, that kind of attitude will eventually get noticed,” and backfire, she says.

Competitive people are easy to spot because they “have a desire to win at any cost,” says Tom Fletcher, an industrial and organizational psychologist in Bloomington, Ill., who says the competitive label is often misapplied to people who are achievement-oriented.

The ones who actually should wear it, his research has found, are motivated by beating others above all else. They tend to be “less friendly, less moral, less cheerful, less sympathetic and less dutiful.”

“Highly competitive people can lose sight of everything except other people’s performance, and this can keep them from doing a first-rate job,” adds Robert Helmreich, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has studied achievement and found the most successful people were actually the least competitive.

In one study of business people, conducted with colleague J. T. Spence, he found those who made the most money scored low on a scale of competitiveness; those who ranked high in dedication to their work and mastery of their tasks earned the highest salaries.

This is because, he says, they spend the majority of their time and energy striving to learn and improve, and give little thought to whether they are doing better, or worse, than colleagues.

In the long run, someone trying to outperform others instead of being co-operative will be more likely to deliver mediocre performance because the person seeks “easy wins” rather than working hard to do his or her best, Dr. Fletcher says.

Another reason being too competitive can work against you, says Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, is that it cuts you off from other people. In a competitive workplace environment, he has found the sharing of ideas, expertise or support is not encouraged, and this undermines everyone’s productivity.

So what can you do if you’re using competitiveness to your own disadvantage?

Take a look at your motives and “decide if your behaviour is directed toward winning or succeeding,” Dr. Fletcher says. “Winning involves besting another individual without regard to real performance standards, whereas succeeding means seeking a set standard and accomplishing the goals regarding that standard.”

You can also curb your competitive streak by going out of your way to try to help others – what might seem the antithesis of competing. Mentoring a colleague, collaborating with a perceived rival or giving credit for an idea to a co-worker are all ways to look, and feel, less competitive, he says.

As for Ms. Symmons’ client, the first step she took to help him understand how his competitiveness had cost him his promotion was to show him how he undermined his long-term career goals by wanting to ‘win’ in every situation.

Because she believes that competitive behaviour can be a result of low self-esteem, Ms. Symmons also tried to help her client raise his self-confidence and practise mindfulness to stop what she calls the “wound-up worrying.”

At his old job, the damage was done and she urged him to start fresh somewhere else.

He did and, even though it meant a pay cut and starting lower on the ladder, bringing a less competitive attitude to work is paying off, she says.

As he spends less time and energy worrying about beating co-workers and more on working with them, he finds that co-operativeness begets co-operativeness.

He’s already won one promotion in the few months he’s been there.

“It’s like night and day when I see him now,” Ms. Symmons says, “He is happier, healthier and more successful, and it’s all because he stopped being too competitive.”

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