A bit of healthy competition in the workplace never harmed anyone, but when it turns into a full-blown war, you know you have a problem on your hands. Indeed, too much competition can cause stress, kill morale and create opportunities for backstabbing colleagues.
In our 2021 study, Pursuit of Viable Careers, Post-COVID (PDF), we discovered that only 1 in 10 people are motivated by competition in the workplace, which means the majority of people prefer working in a non-competitive environment.
But workplace competition is on the rise, with managers encouraging coworkers to go head-to-head for the next promotion or end-of-month bonus. But with the office turning into a corporate version of The Hunger Games, it’s hard to focus on your actual work and duties when you’re fighting for survival.
So, how do you handle the annoying coworker that’s always trying to sabotage you and take credit for your work and how should you deal with competition in a place that’s naturally competitive? These tips below will help you deal with the rivalry in a professional and somewhat graceful manner.
1. Assess the situation
First things first, you need to assess the situation and make sure there aren’t any misunderstandings. Every workplace is different, so it’s worth considering whether you’re being a little sensitive to the situation, or if it is as competitive as you think. Assess if it’s one particular colleague that seems to be competitive, or if it’s the team as a whole.
For example, if it’s one specific coworker that’s stealing ideas or stepping on others to progress, what are their reasons for doing so? It’s a good idea to get to know them a little better to understand their thought processes.
2. Don’t lose focus
It’s easy to let a competitive coworker negatively affect your work life, deliberately making you lose focus, and, ultimately, creating an easy win for them. Learn to fight the temptation and concentrate on what you were hired to do.
It can be hard to maintain your focus when you are constantly trying to one-up your colleagues, but this can lead to lower productivity, as you scramble to pull together multiple projects instead of dedicating time to doing one project extremely well. So, maintain your focus and you’ll be able to pre-plan and execute things well, instead of fumbling about and not getting anything productive done.
William Cannon, CEO and Founder of UpLead, says: “It is recommended that if the employees keep their mind positive and maintain their focus on work, competition can be a positive experience. If a person starts exposing his/her uniqueness and skills in the workplace, there is a good chance that the trait will automatically take them forward in the team.”
3. Talk to them
If it’s a specific colleague that’s constantly competing with you, the mature thing to do would be to call them out by talking to them in a calm manner. After all, they may not even realize that they are being overly competitive and that it’s hurting team morale.
Make sure you can provide a couple of examples of when their actions were out of line — this may be all it takes to kick their competitive behavior to the curb and establish a friendlier and healthier environment.
4. Form alliances
If someone is creating a toxic and competitive environment at work, by throwing everyone under the bus, it’s time you joined forces with others. Let people know that you can be trusted and that you’re a team player.
For example, if you see someone is inching closer to a deadline and still has a lot of work to do, offer them your help (as long as your own workload can be pushed to the side for another day, of course).
By showing you are willing to work within a team, it might convince your competitive coworker that it isn’t as dog-eat-dog as they think, and they might even help, too (although, make sure they don’t try to steal all the credit).
5. Compete with yourself
Use this unhealthy competition to better yourself and your skills, and shift your energy to focus on improving your strengths and weaknesses in the workplace.
Los Angeles-based psychologist, Dr Yvonne Thomas, adds: “Competitive people get things done and have much self-discipline, perseverance and stamina, typically not giving up easily in the pursuit to be the best at whatever they are aiming for. Because competitive people are frequently very motivated and perform at a high level, they can often inspire others to function and perform to the best of their abilities as well.”
So, by adopting this mentality, you could be inspired by your competitive colleague and utilize their techniques to improve your work output. However, make sure to stay humble and not get carried away by their competitive behavior.
6. Talk to your boss
Sometimes, competition in the workplace can have a detrimental effect on your team. If the person who is creating these conditions isn’t getting the memo about how their behavior is affecting others, it might be time to bring it up with your boss.
Having an open conversation with your manager doesn’t have to be a big deal. Although, it’s important to tread carefully, as you don’t want to look like you’re the one that’s causing conflict in the office. Kema Christian-Taylor advises to start the discussion by saying something along the lines of “There’s someone in the office whose attitude is negatively affecting team morale and productivity. What do you think is the best way to handle this?”
By phrasing it this way, you’re clearly stating the issue, as well as asking for ways that you can help the situation. You’re not laying the entire responsibility on your boss, but proving, once again, that the overall team morale is your main concern. It’s also worth making sure you have evidence to back up your claims, as otherwise, it’s your word against theirs.
7. Don’t bite back
No matter how much your competitor tries to provoke you, it’s imperative that you bite the bullet and don’t get carried away. Their behavior may be the result of them feeling threatened by your success and they will exhaust any avenues to try to put you in a bad light.
Leonie Stanley, business analyst and coach, says: “The big secret to this is to keep quiet. You don’t say a word. You allow them to have their rant, and once done, you present the facts.” By doing this, you’re acknowledging their concerns, listening to their opinion without interrupting with your own, and then moving in and backing up your opinion with the facts you’ve researched and have to hand.
Leonie also advised to make sure you’re fully prepared for every eventuality. Make notes. Do research. Go into the meeting prepared for the possible rebuffs, and you’ll feel more confident making a stand and not backing down. Make sure you’re always civil and respectful to everyone in the workplace — even if you secretly dislike them!
8. Be likeable
The hypercompetitive colleague you’re dealing with may simply be intimidated by you and may think you’ll try to sabotage their successes. They will often automatically mark you as the enemy before they even get to know you. To combat this, do your best to show them that that just isn’t you and be genuinely friendly with them.
We all know the saying “kill them with kindness”, and this rings true in the workplace, too. We’re all guilty of judging people/situations before getting to know the facts to some extent, so show the competitive colleague that you mean no harm and that your only interest is contributing to the team’s success. Hopefully, they’ll alter their initial judgement of you and, moving forward, things will run more smoothly.
9. Compliment them
Flattery may be another way to win over your rival and get them to see that you’re not a threat to them. Competition may often be the result of insecurity, and if you help boost their ego, they’ll most likely drop the act and be friendlier towards you.
Although this may ease the conflict temporarily, there’s a fine line between helping the insecure and encouraging an egomaniac. A big ego in the workplace can be equally detrimental. So, hand out the compliments sparingly. If someone has done a good job, compliment their process. If they’ve landed a big client through hard work, compliment that too. Just make sure to not go over the top.
10. Keep your distance
Sometimes, it’s easier to simply stay out of the way. I’m not saying you need to hole up in a corner at the office, but just learn to avoid the competitive coworker and keep conflict to a minimum. If you’re required to work on something together, then avoiding them won’t work, but if you’re not required to work directly with each other, then avoid, avoid, avoid. You’ll probably be much happier.
11. Correspond in writing
Following on from the previous point, if you do have to engage in a work-related conversation with a competitive colleague, try to keep it in writing, whether it’s via email or on your company’s chat system. If in-person conversations have been strained in the past, then communicating by email is an easy way to avoid any confrontations.
Make sure to keep copies of your communication in case it’s needed in the future, too. If you feel like there will be information held back that will hinder you from completing a job, it’s worth adding a CC to ensure you’re receiving all the information that you need to proceed with your task.
12. Ask to move teams
If you really can’t see eye-to-eye with a competitive colleague, consider moving teams, if possible. There’s no guarantee that the grass will be greener on the other side, but if you’re that unhappy, you might as well try. Maybe moving teams will benefit your career progression, anyway? Or you could apply new skills you’ve learned in a more cooperative environment with people that will appreciate your insights.
13. Speak up in meetings
If you notice that a certain colleague is stealing your ideas and suggesting them in team meetings, speak up about it! You could say something like: “Thank you for sharing the idea that I mentioned earlier, Jane. I think it will be…” and then elaborate on your thought process behind it.
Having confidence in your skills and knowledge is key here. Even the most introverted people will have to speak up at some point in their career, so it’s worth practicing this so you can improve your confidence (maybe in a mirror, or with a friend) and show you won’t be walked all over.
14. Stay in the loop
If there’s any gossip about you circulating the office, you’ll want to know about it. So, although we usually advise against getting involved in office politics, in this case, you’ll need to keep one ear open to know if your competitor is spreading any unfounded and hurtful rumors about you.
Although you’ll want to know what’s being said about you, make sure to avoid gossiping about the competitive colleague with other coworkers. Stanley advises to “Steer clear of office politics. It’s the fastest way to shoot yourself in the foot. Backstabbers are alive and real! Your gossip-buddy today is your downfall tomorrow.”
Don’t let the workplace bullies win. If someone is spreading hurtful rumors, make sure to report this to your manager and/or HR department so they can fully investigate.
15. Know your rights
If your colleague is using deceptive and unfair methods to compete against you, for example, they are abusing the system and taking your good leads just to be at the top of the game and win the end-of-month bonus, then file a complaint and report what’s going on to your HR department who will be able to investigate the matter further.
In this instance, you’ll need proof of what the coworker has been doing. Remember, if this happens often, keep a record of it so you can take it to HR. That way, they’ll have evidence to hand if they choose to follow any disciplinary procedures.
16. Try working with them
If you’re a strong-willed individual who thrives on working and communicating with others, it might be worth making the extra effort to actually work with the competitive person.
As the saying goes: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” You can try working with your colleague and asking for their advice while you’re at it. It might help them see that you’re not a rival and that there’s no need for animosity.
Another benefit to this is you might begin to understand their thought processes more, too, which means you might begin to see why they’re competitive and be more empathetic.
17. Act with integrity
Regardless of how your competitive your colleagues choose to be, avoid engaging in any petty competition and always use morally good means in all your endeavors. Workplace integrity is important, and by acting honestly, keeping your promises, and following the rules, your professional career will flourish. Don’t lower yourself to their standards - be the star employee that you are, and let your jealous coworker continue digging themselves a bigger hole.
18. Keep up with developments
Many of us work in naturally competitive fields, so make sure to stay up to date with developments in your area of expertise, because your competitor will be doing the same! If you’re lagging behind and your knowledge is dwindling, there’s a high chance they’ll reap the benefits of working hard and advancing their skillset.
Bryan Philips, head of marketing at In Motion Marketing, says: “The internet is a great source, whether you choose to take online courses, watch YouTube videos, or read published articles on updates in your community. Knowing the latest innovations and tactics for your career will keep you up to date and well-versed in your field, causing you to stand out among your coworkers.”
19. Celebrate your personal wins
Many people suffer with imposter syndrome. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.
As hard as it may be sometimes, you need to celebrate each and every achievement you make, whether that’s simply speaking up in a meeting or getting great feedback in your appraisal. By giving yourself a pat on the back, you’re proving to yourself that your hard work is paying off.
Devin Schumacher, founder of SERP, says: “Celebrate even your small or incremental wins that are not visible to everyone else. This sustains your confidence. Do not let yourself be rattled by another person’s achievements, and know that you are a different person, and that you have your own strengths and weaknesses. Know yourself truly so that you can leverage the best parts of you.”
20. Find another job
If you have exhausted all your options and you’re still feeling the effects of a toxic work environment, it might be time for you to look for a job elsewhere. You need to think about your own happiness, at the end of the day, and if you really can’t resolve your differences with your annoying colleague, then you’ll need to find an escape route.
In an interview with CareerAddict, Adele Leah, career coach and job search specialist, adviced: “I would look at trying to take some time out (maybe a holiday). Recoup and get yourself together. Then, get your résumé and LinkedIn profile updated. Really take some learnings from the experience and find why you’re finding the situation so negative, so that when you’re looking to move to the next role, you can make the right move — the last thing you want to do is jump out of the frying pan and right into the fire.”
Competition can be a good thing (in certain circumstances), but in others, it can really affect people’s morale.
The best way to deal with a competitive coworker is to avoid sinking to their level. Stay true to yourself and make sure you focus on your work and career goals. Leonie Stanley cautions us to “Never stop learning. Always invest time in yourself and expand your knowledge. The minute you think you know it all, you are dead in the water. Then you become arrogant, and we don’t like arrogance in the workplace either.”
Competition can be a challenging issue to deal with, but by following the advice given here, you should be able to move forward. And, if you’re still struggling, it might be time to find a job and team that encourages teamwork over the successes of individuals and prefers collaboration over competition.
Join the discussion! Have you ever had to deal with a competitive coworker before? If so, share your stories with us in the comments section below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article that was originally published on 25 April 2018 and contains contributions by staff writer Hayley Ramsey.