When Does Competition With a Co-worker Go Too Far?

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Competition is a concept that means different things to each person. Certain people have fierce competitive streaks hiding beneath their rosy exteriors.

Conventional wisdom warns against discussing religion, politics and sex unless you want to engage in a fierce ideological battle with someone. In some households, any of those three topics are up for debate as long as you don't mention or bring out Monopoly.

Each family has one person whose lust to control every property on the board and cover them with a sea of hotels turns him or her into a tyrant. Not until you sit down to play the game with this usually affable person do you realize the Jekyll/Hyde effect Marvin Gardens can have on a person.

Imagine that person at work, a setting that is often designed to pit colleagues against one another in order to bring out the best in everyone. For some workers, this healthy competition quickly becomes toxic.


Spirited competition

Employers want the most from their workers. If an employee is too comfortable, he or she is liable to coast through the day and turn in adequate -- but not necessarily the best --work. Bosses looking to keep their employees innovative and hardworking may offer a reward -- be it monetary, recognition or something else -- that only the best worker can earn. In order to be the winner, employees will push themselves harder than they might otherwise.

Laurent Duperval, Duperval Consulting, believes this type of system can have the intended, positive effect. "Competition in the workplace is usually a good thing. Healthy competition will cause others to surpass themselves in order to achieve a goal that they might not attain otherwise."

Problems arise when the competition overshadows everything else, including personal enrichment.

"It becomes an end instead of a means: Once employees start to compete just to compete, but there is no tangible benefit for the company, then it should stop," Duperval says. "Competition has to yield something positive for the company and for the employees."

Even the most competitive employees want the chance to gain something from the experience, whether or not they're the No. 1 player. Duperval believes that a system set up to punish more than reward workers isn't going to inspire the majority of your team.

"If you sell a product that only 10 companies in the world can buy and you have 10 salespeople, at least five of them have no chance of winning," Duperval explains. "On the other hand, if your product can be sold to 1000 companies, but your average salesperson is only capable of closing 50 of them, then everybody can win. Those that work better or faster will close more than the others. With a competitive environment, maybe the average salespeople will close 60 sales instead of 50. Under these conditions, everyone wins."


The right challenge for the right person

In the right environment, competition highlights the strongest performers and helps the company. For some workers, Duperval cautions, competition isn't the right motivator.

"Some people can't stand any type of competition and will become more aggressive or less productive as soon as there is a bit of competition. In these instances, the competition is not to blame," he says. "The employee is probably not in the right place. Therefore, employers need to validate whether competition or the employee is to blame for ensuing bad behavior."

Holly Green, an expert in teamwork, personality assessment and change management, also emphasizes the role of the employer in the situation. The switch between healthy and unhealthy competition can result from an ineffective design.

"When competition goes too far, the manager has neglected his or her teambuilding responsibilities," Green says. "It may be a challenging conversation, but the co-workers need to have their goals and values reassessed with strategic plans and remuneration realigned."

As a worker, you can find yourself so caught up in the situation that you don't realize you're set up to fail. If you've been given a goal that is nearly impossible for you to achieve because you're not given ample resources, you might not feel like you have the time to stand back and assess everything. As Green points out, a dialogue about your expectations and the path to reach them is worth the time.


The worst in people

Duperval points out that unhealthy competition can impact workers in ways a boss might not see coming. An obvious, though unwelcome, possibility is physical harm between co-workers. When situations get heated, fists might fly. If that friendly game of Monopoly can result in the flatiron game piece being pelted at an opponent, think about what workers will do if they think their paychecks or jobs depend on a competition's outcome.

Perhaps less obvious are the emotional effects that workers don't show their colleagues.

"When competition causes ... enough distress that an employee takes it out on his or her spouse, children or innocent bystanders, then it has gone too far," Duperval warns.

Not all employees engaged in workplace competition will take things too far, but there's always a chance. Ultimately you have to remember that you should use your co-workers' successes as motivation to improve your performance for your own sake, not as a reason to feel like you've beat them at something.

Copyright 2009 CareerBuilder.com

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