Rivalry at work: how to deal with competitive colleagues

Jan 24, 2022

4 mins

Rivalry at work: how to deal with competitive colleagues
Pauline Allione

Journaliste independante.

Is one of your colleagues constantly eyeing up your results? Do they always try to do better than you and then brag about it? Have they even gone so far as to set little traps for you? This may come from underlying jealousy and a hankering for your position, your professional relationships or the advantages you have. Those with a non-competitive soul may say that ignoring such behavior is the solution. But if it is getting under your skin, you don’t have to stay silent. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself against pushy colleagues.

We have all had that one arrogant classmate who wanted to know everyone’s grades after a test. If they got a high score, they had no problem bragging about it. If not, they said nothing. Schoolyard wars are alive and well in adulthood; they just take different forms. We’re not talking about math or English exams anymore but about balance sheets, customers and salaries. According to Mila Elhamdi, a career coach in France, competitiveness in business can be good and bad. When used correctly, competition can boost morale, remotivate the troops and enhance productivity. To determine the kind of competitor you’re up against, pay attention to the signals your colleague sends out.

Identify red flags

Florence, who works as a department manager in a lending company, has noticed that her colleague Marie glares at her during the day. Marie, who is 30 years her junior, works in the same office and in a similar position. “She watches what I do, asks our boss about my results, and is always showing off. For example, she constantly reminds our direct manager that she leaves work at 8PM,” says Florence. With her “kiss-ass” behavior, Marie has achieved her goals by becoming very good friends with the big boss. Florence does not trust her. “There is probably a bit of hypocrisy, but we get along well despite everything, and then, during lockdown, we were separated when everyone was working from home. I’m nearing the end of my career, I don’t want to work more hours so I let it go, I don’t lose sleep over it,” says Florence.

Marie seems to tick all the boxes to indicate a harmful competitor, for which there are several indicators: constant comparison, trying to find out others’ results without sharing their own, showing off in front of superiors etc. “These people are not team players. They collect information to serve their own interests and figure out where they stand in relation to others. Those who are indifferent to competition, like Florence, distance themselves from disagreements and judgmental glances to avoid conflict. However, if it affects your self-confidence, it is better to talk about it,” says Elhamdi.

Don’t be the victim of someone’s jealousy

Laura, 23, was a target of envy from her colleagues when she worked in luxury hotels and restaurants. In an environment loaded with sexism and chauvinism, the line was constantly crossed. “Other servers took my tables without telling me, on purpose, so that I would get mixed up and my customers would end up with their food but no cutlery,” she says. “Instead of rewarding me when I did well, my boss, who was a woman, would give me all the dirty work the next day: cleaning the cutlery with vinegar for longer than the others, scrubbing the toilets with bleach, things like that.” As she was not interested in having a career in catering, Laura did not want to confront her colleagues or her boss. This was just a seasonal job for her.

However, if this kind of behavior is something you have to deal with on a regular basis, sometimes you have to put your foot down. “You have to try to talk to people who are starting to irritate you. Let them know that you’re not the kind of person who plays these games,” Elhamdi says. If tensions persist even after you have made your position clear, you can always call in a manager to help defuse the situation. Some companies encourage a spirit of competition, rewarding employees for achievement. If that is the case, why not explain to your manager that competitiveness, while a great way to inspire teams, can sometimes be detrimental to productivity and team spirit. “If communication starts to break down and the positive energy fades, these might be signs that competition is actually counter-productive,” says Elhamdi.

Working towards helpful rivalry

A little tension between staff is not always a bad thing, despite what those who are not competitive might think. As long as competition is not pushed too strongly by the head of the company and if we play nicely, it can lead to innovative and original ideas. “Competition requires creativity in order to succeed at your job. A competitive person will avoid spreading themselves too thinly and always be working towards their goals,” says Elhamdi. While we cannot control what kind of competition we will face with our colleagues – this mainly depends on their personality – healthy rivalry can lead to self-improvement and provide individual benefits, with no hard feelings. Healthy competition and a challenge can also be a way to break the routine at work by boosting your motivation and switching up day-to-day tasks. That is, of course, provided you remain a gracious loser and accept that you can’t always win. “When you’re a competitive person, you want everyone to participate at the same level as you. This turns competition into a game for the group,” says Elhamdi.

Use competitors as inspiration

Some people take games too seriously and flip out when they lose, while others only play for fun and accept victory in the same way as defeat. Both in and outside the office, facing a competitive person when you are not one yourself can be confusing and sometimes annoying. According to Elhamdi, however, we can all bring something to the table: “If one person shows a competitive spirit and succeeds in what they are doing, don’t hesitate to talk to them and try to understand what motivates them.” Ask them about their concerns around their performance, their frustrations, what drives them, etc. “From there, try to be empathetic and learn from these conversations, using them to change how you work. And who knows? Maybe that will spark a little flame of competitiveness within you too,” she says.

The important thing is to stick to your values and avoid getting dragged into being competitive against your will. This can mean remaining neutral so long as your self-confidence isn’t affected, speaking up when necessary, or even getting in on the game if it boosts motivation. “Take any good competitive traits on board and use them wisely, and leave the rest at the door,” Elhamdi says. Watch out for traps set by competitive coworkers – even though now you know how to handle them.

Names have been changed

Translated by Kim Cunningham

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook on LinkedIn and on Instagram and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!

Topics discussed