Depending on what industry you work in, there will be varying degrees of competition among colleagues. In many industries, there can be incredible competition to get jobs in the first place, and once you are in, the competition only increases. The Muse found that nearly a third of managers thought their employees were more competitive than a decade ago.
Whilst competition can foster great results in some, it can strike fear and anxiety in others, and therefore needs to be managed carefully.
How Competition Impacts Mental Health & Performance
One of the benefits of a competitive workplace is that it spurs production levels and quality as employees all compete against each other to be the best. However, this can lead to employees working extremely long hours, burning out, and compromising both their physical and mental health.
According to the authors of "Top Dog", Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, 25% of people become disengaged when there is too much competition, another 25% of people aren't impacted by it at all, and the remaining 50% benefit from competition. The authors also found that men tended to embrace competition and were overconfident in their abilities, whereas women were more risk-averse and avoided competition.
Author Daniel Pink, of “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, says that extrinsic motivation - prizes and competitions - only last so long. After a while, the impact dies out and the motivation dissipates. However, intrinsic motivation - the urge to do a good job and the drive to do well - is what really drives performance.
A bit of healthy workplace rivalry can turn into an all-out war, with colleagues undermining each other, colleagues rooting for each other to fail just so that they then look good, and colleagues sabotaging one another. This can lead to higher levels of anxiety, isolation, and burnout, not to mention a more volatile and less productive workplace.
So, how can we move forward from here?
Firstly, workplaces need to focus on collaboration over competition. Yes, a little bit of competition can go a long way - in some cases, but it can also go a long way to destroying morale. Collaboration between departments and colleagues can increase productivity, spirit, and long-term success rates. There is also less staff turnover if workers feel happy and safe within their workplace.
If the culture at your office is unlikely to change, here are some tips for dealing with a highly competitive environment;
1. Don't lose focus - it can be easy to get lost in the competition but don't lose focus on why you are doing what you are doing. Is it a job that you love? Is it a passion project? Are you helping people? Are you learning key skills? Are you there to pay for your summer holiday? Whatever it is, don't let the competition swallow you up.
2. Take a step back - regularly take a step back from work-mode to assess whether it is worth being dragged into the competition. Is the reward worth the struggle? Is there something better that you can be doing with your time?
3. Get to know your colleagues - by getting to know your colleagues a bit better, you might come to find that you can work with them better. The other benefit is that you might start to understand why they are so competitive - perhaps it is just in their nature, perhaps they crave praise and validation due to underling insecurities, or perhaps they don't have much else to focus on such as family outside hobbies.
4. If you really find the competitive environment is putting you off your work or impacting your mental health, then perhaps it is time to sit down with your manager and discuss this with them. Let them know that you aren't motivated by such competition and let them know what does motivate you.
5. As a final resort, it might be time to start looking to move jobs. I once worked in a sales job and the whole office was trying to emulate the Wolf of Wall Street movie. They handed out forfeits, punishments, and humiliation on a daily basis. I am quite happy to say that I left that job after only two weeks and have no shame in protecting my mental health over a job that was making me miserable.
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