Can rivalry at work ever really be a good thing?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Rivalry can end badly for employees. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s difficult not to compare ourselves to one another sometimes. And it’s often said that a little healthy competition is rarely a negative thing, particularly in the workplace, where it can be motivating and encourage us to push ourselves to do our best. 

Often, employers introduce bonus schemes and targets to encourage employees to compete. But when competition escalates - particularly when a person is pitted against one other member of staff for a promotion, for example - rivalry can often create stress and affect our job performance and motivation. 

So what is the difference between healthy competition and rivalry - and does the latter ever really benefit employees? 

Competition is inescapable, appearing in sport, academia and in work. And in many ways, it can benefit the way we perform. In 2014, a study from New York University found that rivalry has a measurable impact on both motivation and how well you perform on a task. When studying long-distance runners, researchers found that people ran faster in races featuring their rivals - compared to ones in which their rival didn’t compete.

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Unlike other competitions, the NYU study suggests, rivalry occurs between people who already know each other and who take their history of past interactions into account in competition.  

“How we behave in competition situations depends on our relationship and history of interaction with our opponent,” researcher Gavin J. Kilduff writes in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“This suggests that we may be able to boost our own levels of motivation and performance by either forming rivalries or harnessing the ones we already have. It might also get us to think about whether other individuals in our lives may view us as their rivals.”

Don’t make it personal

While competition can be friendly and motivating, a problem can arise when rivalries become personal - particularly in the workplace. With many of us under high pressure and battling heavy workloads, we are often more tightly wound and prone to jumping to conclusions or getting angry. This is especially the case if we believe another employee isn’t playing fair by sabotaging our work or taking credit for our achievements. 

Rivalry at work often occurs as a result of limited resources. For example, if only one person is able to get a promotion or a raise. Because of this, competition can become negative and hate-fuelled. 

Recently, the job website Monster undertook a survey on rivalries in the workplace, asking respondents to share their specific stories of having a combatant on the job. In many cases, rivalry intensified all the way to bullying. 

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Karin Peeters, coach, psychotherapist and the founder of Vitalis Coaching, says that rivalry can end badly for employees. 

“I do believe in inspiring each other to be better and to grow into a bigger version of ourselves. But based on wanting the other to succeed and to be happy, as much as myself,” she says. “I also believe in being ambitious, to strive to be better and make an impact. But ambition doesn't mean that another person suffers because of my progress. Rivalry, how I understand it, has the intention to be at the expense of someone else. 

“Rivalry is competitive, it is about ‘I win and you lose’ - about getting a sense of satisfaction out of the misfortune of another,” Peeters adds. “To promote winning at the detriment of another human being, I can't see how that could ever contribute to a healthy culture at work.” 

Companies are based on a team of people working together to reach a common purpose, Peeters adds. “True leaders rise by lifting others. Rivalry in my eyes is about individual gain, and it might get someone impressive places in terms of their CV, but it forgets about the relationship and deeper values,” she says. 

Rivalry can lead to stress, feeling overwhelmed and also contribute to feelings of paranoia, which is rarely a good thing. It can also be a distraction too, which can impact your performance, lead to poor day-to-day decisions and negate any positive effects of healthy competition. In the long-term, it may be better to disengage from rivals in the office completely and keep your distance.