We’ve all heard that life isn’t a competition, but let’s face it, does anyone actually believe that? It might be something we tell children alongside tales about Santa Claus, but we all know who’s leaving presents under the tree. Competition in the workplace is inevitable, and in fact, valuable. Where would Ali have been without Frazier? The Beatles without the Rolling Stones? Pac-Man without Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde?

Healthy competition pushes us to excel, to take chances and to better ourselves. Of course, competition has its toxic dark side: it can drain your morale, blind you to organizational goals, and exacerbate stress. The key to winning lies in competing on your terms, taking advantage of your strengths, and making the most of your opportunities.

Focus on yourself

The reality is that no matter where you work, you’re going to encounter individuals who are more capable and successful. Colleagues will be promoted ahead of you, maybe get larger bonuses. But it’s critical to remember that you were hired for a reason and that you possess abilities and skills that your employers value. Instead of focusing on a colleague’s career path, work to understand your own unique strengths and identify opportunities that will help showcase your talents.

If you feel insecure about your abilities for any reason, be brave and identify its source. Maybe you could use more training or professional and personal development to build your confidence and assuage lingering doubts about your skill set.

Identify individuals whose career paths mirror your own aspirations and learn from them. What have they done to achieve their successes? What insight could they provide to you?

Forge alliances


Competition can be brutal, but you don’t have to struggle alone. Everyone needs help in the workplace. Reach out to individuals in other departments and groups regularly to create opportunities for collaboration and mutual support. It’s crucial to build up a deep internal network of allies whom you can support and who can do the same for you. When working with others, be clear about what you need and listen to your colleagues so that you have a deep understanding of their needs and how you can support them. In meetings, use inclusive language. Instead of saying “I,” say “We” when you’re discussing projects, teamwork, and objectives. After all, everyone is committed to working towards success.

And, just like Luke needed his Yoda, having a mentor and a sponsor in a competitive environment can be a huge asset. Most successful individuals will mention how a mentor inspired and guided them. Their experience, insight, and perspective means that there will be chances for you to learn from someone else’s mistakes and not your own for once. A sponsor can be your internal advocate, someone who will help advance your cause and who can speak on your behalf, providing you with exposure and projects that will stretch and test your abilities.

Work with, and not against, the competition

Overly competitive individuals abound in workplaces, and dealing with them can be difficult, but there are ways to cope.

Talk to them, and be polite and civil. A signal to overly competitive colleagues that you are not a threat may motivate them to treat you nicely in return. It can also help to ask them for insight and advice about the work they do; praise them too for work that’s done well. Flattery goes a long way and who knows? They might just embrace you as someone they can trust.

Watch your back

Of course, a different approach is justified when you’re forced to deal with colleagues who actively seek to undermine you. You know the type. They’re saboteurs. He or she’s the one who “forgot” to invite you to a meeting or to copy you on an important email; who takes credit for your work and who neglects to acknowledge your contributions. With these individuals, you’d better watch your back.

Document your contributions in detail and maintain copies of everything you do, especially as it relates to any work involving the problematic colleague. Update your manager regularly on the work you’ve been doing. In the highly likely event that your co-worker attempts to throw you under the bus to explain away their own mistakes or paint you in a less than flattering light, you’ll have documented and verifiable evidence to refute any claims.

If you suspect your co-worker of snooping, deploy passwords to protect any electronic files you use at the office and keep your desk and any storage areas locked with a key. Chances are your competitor will attempt to pry information out of you by acting friendly, so it’s best to be wary and minimize contact with them as much as possible. If you do have to engage in a conversation, be professional and respectful, but maintain your distance.

Finally, let such colleagues know that you’re aware of what they’re doing. Call them out on their tactics and show them that you’re far from an easy target. However, a direct confrontation might not be something with which you’re entirely comfortable. In that case, speak with your manager and let him or her know what’s happening and how this individual’s behaviour is influencing your performance and satisfaction, and what you’ve done to resolve the issue.

Life is a competition but it can often encourage us to perform beyond even our own potentials and expectations. The key to surviving workplace competition is to ensure that it stays healthy by balancing it with a deep sense of mutual respect for your colleagues, and a recognition that you’re all bound by a common desire: to perform well and succeed.

See also:

8 difficult office personalities and how to work with them
How to survive your first office job


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