Competition at work


In Leadership by Jeff Czernicki

“Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen, for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving people you know – people who are, in other words, not you.” ~ Anne Lamott

One of the best damn quotes ever. I mean when you read it, well, it almost comes off like something from Dr. Seuss. Until you realize, wait a minute, what the hell is this? It is a burn.

This bitterness is what many of us experience in our jobs, a sour feeling in the pit of our stomachs. It is a result of a joint activity in the workplace, one that happens more often than we would like. It is something we are familiar with and willingly or not, regular participants in.

It is misguided competition, and it has been a factor in our lives ever since you played dodge ball in the 3rd -grade. Competition has been part of your life for as long as you can remember. It is how the game is played from school age all the way to that notorious corner office.

However, what is it about how we “play the game?” Moreover, why is it that we can find ourselves, and some more than others, doing whatever it takes to come out on top? What enters into play that can make this behavior so toxic and leads to us hating those jackholes we work with so much?

Ok then. A good place to start is…

A toxic workplace is a more typical, natural setting in business offices around America than one might think. The reason behind this is not just due to the people in them being plain nasty and self-centered. Those people, for the most part, are the by-product of the stress which can purvey throughout any given workplace. The primary ingredient to this virulent workplace is unchecked and unhealthy competition. The game which leads to the belief that to get a place at the table, I must win. Moreover, working in this type environment stresses us the *%^@ out!

Why? Because we have either created a limiting belief within ourselves about our worth or worse yet, we took on this belief from others. These beliefs permit us to act in a fashion that would make our mothers cry. It weaves this limiting thought, “If I do not fight for myself, I will not get what I want.”

In an opinion piece in the NY Times Sunday review. “A Toxic Work World,”[i] Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote“…this model of winning at all costs reinforces a distinctive American pathology of not making room for caregiving. The result: We hemorrhage talent and hollow out our society.”

Winning at all costs, fighting for myself, these are positions which are indicative of a zero-sum work environment. Zero-sum is a term used in economics which directly states; for you to establish gains in any particular market, somebody else is going to have to lose.

All well and good in business, right? I mean you are not going to see IBM and HP sharing research and development data with each other, dig? However, put that theory into action in the workplace, and let the chips fall where they may. The clear message sent to the office from above is thus; you better work your ass off if you want to be successful. The latent, yet implied (I almost wrote “subtly” implied… yeah, right) message to the troops is clear as well. For you to succeed (prevail), others must lose. It is unavoidable, don’t lose sleep over it.

A toxic workplace does not breed collaboration; it simply gets fast results. And then it is on to the next project or tasks, and you better get your sh*t together fast. So many managers fail to comprehend the loss of the tangibles which make up successful teams. Spirit, camaraderie, and the value of shared accomplishment.

I believe in many cases, the reason behind this is simple.

It is just too easy. Too easy to pit one team member against another. So for the weak leader, it is the lazy way out. All too often leaders inspire those around them to assume a behavior where achieving the higher score is the best design. Think about it. When you enter a game what is the first question you ask? “What’s the score?”

Amy C. Edmundson wrote an excellent piece in Harvard Business Review, detailing the need to get rid of unhealthy competition in the workplace. She states, “…the unintended consequence is a mindset that views success as a zero-sum game, where my success depends in part on your failure. This mindset fosters an inward focus, a focus on self — on how I am doing compared to others.”[ii]

This inward focus is the diminishing force in corporate America today. The energy it breeds is poisonous. It is predominately catabolic in the sense that catabolic energy is the same energy you release when you feel threatened. Moreover, when we feel threatened, it is usually a fight or flight reaction that takes place. Looking at this from a workplace perspective, if it is flight you choose, you ain’t working here long, so, fight it is.

What is the issue with taking a progressive approach to competition? Is it that we cannot begin to wrap our minds around how we could incentivize our teams without pitting them against each other?

John Ortberg, in his book “When The Game Is Over, It All Goes Back In The Box”[iii] shares this profound thought. “…Competition becomes toxic when it gives rise to envy and jealousy. It becomes dark when I am tempted to cheat in order to come out ahead. It poisons the soul when “winner” and “loser” become labels of worth and identity, and respect for the battle itself is lost.”

What are the potential outcomes when teams and peers, become fixated on the intent to share the victory and stand together in accomplishment? What would be the reaction if a positive result was all that mattered and a modicum of individual accolades were necessary? Moreover, what if our leaders embrace their employees for the collective effort and speak to a collaborative mindset as one which brings personal recognition?

I can already feel your grip loosening around my throat.