It all started innocently enough.
I was chatting with a fellow freelance writer about growing her portfolio and client base. After more friendly conversation, she asked if I’d be willing to make an introduction to an editor I regularly work with.
My stomach dropped into my shoes. Of course, I wanted to offer support and help her out—I’m not a total monster. But, I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t another large part of me that wanted to shut her down immediately with some sort of excuse.
Shouldn’t I be trying to keep all the work I can get, rather than giving it away to other writers?
I had to make this happen myself, so shouldn’t she do the same?
Even worse, what if that editor likes her work more than mine, and suddenly I find myself out of a reliable writing gig?
I’ll be honest: Even typing those doubts is a blatant reminder of how ridiculous that little voice in my head can be.
But, in all seriousness, this internal conflict happens to the best of us. We want to be supportive and encouraging team players, but we often worry that doing so means an inevitable detriment to our own careers. Is it a good or a bad thing to be competitive at work?
Collaborate Or Compete? That Really Is the Question
Maybe I’m trying to make excuses for myself, but I think this competitive edge is normal, especially when you consider that competition has become such a standard element of our work lives.
We’re pitted against other candidates to land open roles, we’re matched up against our colleagues for promotions, and we’re constantly trying to prove ourselves as the more deserving recipients for awards and other recognition.
Here’s the good news: Competition isn’t all bad. In fact, it can actually serve as a helpful boost to your career and self-esteem (as long as you exercise some oh-so-important moderation, of course).
One study that was conducted on professional archers found that those who had a main rival competing at their event performed far better than those who didn’t have a direct competitor present—something now coined as “the rival effect.”
Beyond enhancing our performance, a certain level of competition also gives our motivation a swift kick in the pants—due to the fact that winning triggers the reward centers in our brain, and that surge in dopamine inspires us to seek out and pursue that same reward all over again.
So, despite the cutthroat connotations, a healthy amount of competition does some good for everybody. But, it’s when it’s taken to the extreme that things really head into a nosedive.
We all realize that people who are overly competitive in their careers can perceived as untrustworthy and undependable—they’re only out for themselves. At their worst, they’ll step on other people to make their way to the top of the pile, and that leads to a lack of solid relationships, a poor reputation, and even a toxic work environment. As an article for Business.com explains, an overly competitive environment can “introduce a need to hurt each other instead of foster collaboration and joint problem solving.”
How To Be Competitive At Work (And Still Support Others)
Well, suddenly this all seems like a delicate tightrope routine, doesn’t it?
You need to be competitive enough that you keep your edge, but not so ambitious that you trample all over everybody else. You need to be helpful, but not a doormat. Driven but not a steamroller.
Rest assured, as fickle as it might seem, it definitely is possible to be both competitive and collaborative in your career. Here are three tips you can use to master this balance.
1. Lean on other people as valuable resources.
When you see that someone else is achieving great things or excelling in a certain area, your first inclination might be to compete with them—to go head-to-head and use their success as your motivation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But, there’s definitely a better way to go about things. Instead of immediately matching yourself up against them, why don’t you learn from them or even utilize their skill sets?
Want to know how they landed that coveted speaking engagement? Take them out for coffee and ask for their insights into the process.
Are you jealous that they managed to launch their own thriving graphic design side gig? You could be resentful of their entrepreneurial success, or you could use their killer design chops for some upcoming assignments to support their business and also take your own projects to the next level.
But is this really that easy to do if you and a competitor are in the exact same industry or position? Or will working together in those instances make you vulnerable and ultimately be your downfall?
The answer might surprise you: collaborating with your direct competitors can actually make both of you better.
In their article for Harvard Business Review, writers Daniel Reynolds and Doug Meyer provide an interesting example of what happened when the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots (two NFL teams within the same conference) actually worked together during scrimmages and joint practices during their 2017 pre-season camps.
When the two teams eventually faced off during a game in January 2018, obviously only one could win (and it ended up being the Patriots). But, both teams were better as a result of that close collaboration.
So, while it seems counterintuitive at best, leaning on and even collaborating with some of your fiercest competitors can mean positive things for both of you.
“Did the Jaguars lose on January 21? Yes. But they were much better as an organization than they were a year earlier, when they not only missed the playoffs but won only three games and lost 13,” wrote the article’s authors.
“Coming out of these practices, the Patriots knew to respect the Jaguars and keep an eye on them throughout the season—knowledge that would certainly aid them in the AFC Championship several months later,” they continue.
2. Jump in and genuinely celebrate other people’s success.
It’s hard to call yourself “supportive” if you’re frequently ignoring and downplaying the accomplishments of others. As much as you might want to skip the obligatory pats on the back in favor of grinding even harder toward your own career goals, the best thing you can do is join in on those celebrations.
Obviously, this goes a long way in establishing that encouraging and supportive reputation you’re trying to foster. But, it does a whole lot more than that (and—bonus alert!—it’s actually pretty self-serving).
Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are the neurochemical drivers responsible for happiness, meaning that an increase in the production of these brain chemicals can improve your mood.
Research has shown that the act of giving—and yes, giving recognition or a well-deserved “congratulations!” definitely counts—actually boosts production of these happiness-inducing brain chemicals. So, you not only lend your support and offer some praise, but you also get to soak up some of that joy for yourself.
This is closely related to a concept called “positive empathy.” You’ve probably heard that negative emotions (like stress, for example) are contagious. But new research proves that positive emotions are, too.
“Moreover, this kind of contagious happiness can be an important source of well-being. The tendency to experience positive empathy is linked to greater life satisfaction, peace of mind, and happiness. It is also associated with greater trust, support, and satisfaction in close relationships,” writes Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, in an article for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Yep, this is your permission to grab a piece of celebratory cake and let that other person know that you’re proud of their accomplishments. It’s one of the best ways to be supportive, while still giving yourself (and your mood) a push in the right direction.
3. Don’t be shy about asking for what you need.
There’s a common trap that we all fall into — we offer help when others need it, because we want to be helpful team players. But then we sit there filled with silent resentment when other people aren’t jumping up to return the favor and offer us a helping hand. Clearly, everybody is just taking advantage of our good nature, right?
Not so fast. Did you ever actually ask for help when you needed it? Or did you just assume that people would recognize your situation and proactively step in?
Too many of us are resistant to asking for help. Many of us view it as a sign of weakness, especially when we’re in an environment that’s already competitive.
“There is a tendency to act as if it’s a deficiency,” said Garret Keizer, author of Help: The Original Human Dilemma, as reported by The New York Times. “That is exacerbated if a business environment is highly competitive within as well as without. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.”
There’s also a persistent fear of rejection that prevents us from sticking our neck out to ask for assistance. But, research has shown that we dramatically underestimate how much people are willing to help. In three different studies, participants underestimated the likelihood that people would agree to help by as much as 50%.
Maybe you could benefit from an introduction to someone outside of your network or some sound advice on a complex problem. Well, you need to swallow your pride and explicitly ask for this type of assistance.
It’ll help you be more competitive by getting you the information and the resources you need, but it also demonstrates a certain level of support—since you’re proving that you obviously trust and value the insights and opinions of others. It’s a win-win.
Striking The Fine Balance Of Collaboration And Competition
You want to climb the proverbial ladder of your own career, but does that mean you’re destined to scratch and claw your way over people who are hanging out on other rungs? Definitely not.
I know from experience (I did eventually make an introduction to that editor, but the way) that striking that delicate balance between being way too cutthroat or being a total doormat can feel tricky at times—and you’re understandably scared of having the pendulum swing way too far in one direction.
Fortunately, it’s more than possible to look out for number one (yep, that’s you) while still keeping the best interests of others in mind at the same time. The above three strategies should help you be competitive at work with balance, so that you can make your way to the top—without standing on a pile of “enemies” that you left in your wake.
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