A healthy sense of competition can spur team members to work harder, strategize smarter and even find new methods of collaboration. But competition run amok can breed envy and resentment, jeopardizing projects, teams—and even careers.
Competition among coworkers is on the rise: Nearly 50 percent of senior managers said their employees were more competitive with co-workers than they had been 10 years ago, according to a July 2012 survey by staffing firm OfficeTeam, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
“Rivalry between coworkers can often become more intense when the economy is uncertain and people feel pressure to prove themselves,” said OfficeTeam executive director Robert Hosking in the report. “A little friendly competition in the office is healthy if it inspires great individual and team performance.”
But it can also go awry unless project managers find the happy medium. “The trick is finding that balance in making competition positive,” says Paul E. McFadden, PMP, neuroleadership coach and COO at Zero Point Leadership, a human performance and leadership development firm in Washington, D.C., USA.
Three tips to maintain a competitive career edge without falling into the negativity trap:
“The trick is finding that balance in making competition positive.”
—Paul E. McFadden, PMP, Zero Point Leadership, Washington, DC, USA
A co-worker's success may ignite envy in some people, but a well-grounded project manager will use it as a growing opportunity. Instead of seeing that person as a rival, re-frame them as a valuable resource.
“If you're jealous or envious of someone in your office, ask him or her to join you for coffee,” says Niels Hamelink, PMP, customer intelligence services manager at marketing agency Sky IQ, London, England. “Everyone has an arsenal of tips and tricks, and they might be able to give you that one tip that helps you manage your project better.”
Don't wonder how a coworker performed well on a project with added complexity—ask, suggests Bill Rebello, PMP, a senior IT infrastructure project manager in Seekonk, Massachusetts, USA. Most people enjoy talking about their wins, and in addition to the lessons gleaned from a casual conversation, you'll be building a relationship that may benefit you on a future project. That's a win-win proposition.
“The goal is to have everyone buy into the mission or vision and then harness that energy to make sure we realize the goal.”
—Ginger Levin, DPA, PMP, PgMP, Lighthouse Point, Florida, USA
FOCUS ON THE GREATER GOAL
The moment team members begin focusing solely on personal gains, the quality of their work—and, in turn, the overall project—starts to suffer because they've lost sight of the company goals, Mr. Hamelink says.
“The goal is to have everyone buy into the mission or vision and then harness that energy to make sure we realize the goal,” says Ginger Levin, DPA, PMP, PgMP, a project program and portfolio management consultant and educator based in Lighthouse Point, Florida, USA. She begins each kickoff meeting by asking each team member to state the vision for common understanding, then documenting it in the team charter. That keeps everyone focused on the overarching goal. “That's the way we meet deliverables, complete projects early and under budget, and gain customers who love us,” Dr. Levin says.
Team leaders can nip conflict in the bud by making everyone involved feel connected to the end result. Every team member wants to feel like an asset, says Mr. McFadden, and negative competition can sometimes stem from people feeling their work isn't tied to the larger goal. He encourages organizations to be transparent about the steps that might lead to promotions or recognition. Those rewards should be driven by skills, outcomes and goals, not personal agendas or simple seniority.
“When people feel like they're adding value and their actions have a purpose, they're more willing to engage and collaborate with team members, contributing to the success of the project,” he says.
COMPETE WITH YOURSELF
Whether you're striving to close a difficult project, maintain a tight budget or climb the next rung in the career ladder, set some goals for yourself. The workplace doesn't have to be a purely competitive landscape; a colleague's success can be a great opportunity to re-examine your own strengths and weaknesses.
“In order to set myself apart from other, often more experienced, project managers, I build better relationships with clients and stakeholders, and understand their business needs better so I can bring more value to the table myself,” Mr. Hamelink says.
Mr. Rebello turns his competitive edge inward by keeping a journal of his goals and tracking his progress. He notes his accomplishments and revisits failures in order to push himself to surpass past performances.
Challenging yourself to expand your professional skill set will both focus your competitive nature and give you an advantage over qualified colleagues, says Dr. Levin. “I attend project management conferences because it keeps me up-to-date with my colleagues, peers and even my students.”
Fighting against your innate competitive nature isn't only difficult; it may be counterproductive. Instead, harnessing that sense of competition can be a boon to your project, your team—and your career. PM
How to Handle a Competitive Co-worker
Managing your own competitiveness is only one side of the coin. Whether it's jockeying to be project lead or picking teams for the company baseball game, you're bound to encounter a co-worker who crosses from friend to foe. Here, project professionals share their thoughts on dealing with a competition-crazy co-worker.
“I'm a believer in communication, but sometimes an overly competitive co-worker can cause one to feel angry, hurt or dismissed through negative actions. If that happens or a conversation becomes non-productive, tactfully remove yourself from the situation. Take a walk or get a breath of fresh air. Leaving the negative space changes your physiology and ultimately your emotional state, and you're able to better use the executive function of your brain to engage with others, look at problems differently and make better decisions.” —Paul McFadden, PMP, Zero Point Leadership, Washington, D.C., USA
“In projects, competition should always result in the project objectives being achieved more efficiently. Team members who are competing only for personal gain can do more harm than good, as they can have a detrimental effect on team spirit.” —David de Jager, PMP, owner and project manager at Project Systems, Cape Town, South Africa
TALK IT OUT
“As soon as team leaders notice someone being negatively competitive, it's important to weed the behavior out. Approach the individual and explain how his or her actions are impacting the project and that the behavior will not be tolerated. Removing someone from the project should be a last resort, but if they don't change, it may be necessary.” —Niels Hamelink, PMP, Sky IQ, London, England