9 MIN READ
How to Manage Rivalry in the Workplace
Avoiding the Negative Effects of Rivalry
Rivalries can push people to perform at the highest level. They can also encourage them to engage in shocking – and even illegal – behavior.
In 1994, American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was poised to claim the national championship. But, after a practice session, an attacker tried to break her leg, and she was forced to withdraw from the event.
Later, it came to light that Kerrigan's main rival, Tonya Harding, had conspired to injure her opponent to give herself a better chance in the competition. Fortunately, Kerrigan's injury healed and she went on to win the silver medal in the Olympics that year. (Meanwhile, Harding finished eighth, eventually pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and was disgraced by the scandal.)
While it is rare that workplace rivalries end in physical injuries and arrests, they can become a distraction, harm morale, and diminish productivity. In this article, we'll explore rivalry in the workplace, and we'll look at how you can limit unhealthy competition and improve collaboration in your own team.
Rivalry in the Workplace
Gavin Kilduff, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, defines rivalry as a form of competition with another person, rather than a focus on attaining a goal or prize.
According to Kilduff, the more similar people are, the more likely they are to become rivals. For example, rivalry can often occur between colleagues with comparable jobs, equivalent titles, or similar skills.
Rivalry between work colleagues can take many forms. For instance, team members may decline to discuss work with one another because they are afraid that someone might steal their ideas. They might take on extra projects, or take the credit for work that isn't their own, to try to impress their bosses. Or, more insidiously, they may try to make other people look bad, by pointing out their faults, or by spreading malicious gossip.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Rivalry
Workplace rivalries can have a number of positive and negative ramifications.
Kilduff's research found that rivalries can drive people to put more effort into tasks, which can lead them to perform at a higher level. In one study, he found that, when runners competed with their rivals, they ran nearly five seconds faster per kilometer. In another, Kilduff discovered that college basketball teams played better defense when they competed against their arch rivals. He attributed these gains to higher levels of motivation.
Similarly, healthy rivalry can boost productivity at work, and it can bring out the best in people's performance. Certain jobs typically suit a competitive environment better than others. In sales, for example, people may compete with one another to bring in more new clients, or win the biggest deal. If managers tie compensation to these targets, this can motivate team members and improve their performance.
Competition can be beneficial, so long as rivals are striving toward common goals. However, those who work at cross-purposes can create a toxic workplace, damage morale and divide teams. This is common when two people are pitted against each other, in situations where there is a clear "winner" and "loser," such as going for the same promotion. In these situations, rivals often focus on themselves rather than the good of their department or organization.
In seeking to get an advantage, some may even be tempted to cross the line into unethical behavior.
Strategies for Managing Rivalry
Below we've listed a number of ways that you can draw out the benefits of competition in your team, while preventing it from escalating into something unhealthy.
Look for Signs of Unhealthy Rivalry
A first step you can take to improve the work environment is to watch out for signs that damaging rivalries exist. Do members of your team frequently argue with one another? Is your team full of gossipers, or are rumors prevalent? Do colleagues trust one another, or do they focus on other people's shortcomings?
Meet With Your Team Members
As soon as you recognize an unhealthy rivalry between your team members, address it. If you ignore it, it can lead to greater problems. This is something that won't go away on its own.
Meet with the rivals separately. Get each person's perspective, and listen actively to make sure you understand his or her concerns. While you should allow both people to vent their frustrations, keep them focused on the facts rather than assigning blame.
Describe the negative behavior that you've observed and how it affects the rest of the team. Explain what the consequences could be if it continues, and suggest ways to resolve the conflict. Then, refocus their efforts on achieving the team's goal.
Establish Clear Boundaries
Sometimes roles are poorly defined, and people try to get "one up" on each other by taking over responsibilities that aren't theirs.
Make sure that you have clear job descriptions for each position in your team. Review responsibilities with the rivals to make sure they understand what is expected of them.
It's important to steer clear of situations where you compare rivals with one another. If you must do so, for example as part of a bonus review, keep the results confidential.
You can also prevent people from comparing themselves by changing their responsibilities, so that they aren't directly pitted against one another.
Set the Right Incentives
If rivalry is a problem, make sure that incentives don't encourage team members to work directly against one another.
If you want to establish a healthy level of competition by encouraging people to meet a quota, or to finish a project quickly, consider avoiding one-on-one competitions. Instead, split people into two or more teams. Although this will inevitably lead to a winning and a losing team, you can avoid any ill-feeling by praising everyone for their collective efforts.
Focus on Team Building
A critical element of maintaining group harmony and productivity is to refocus rival members' attention away from themselves, and back onto team goals and objectives. One way to do this is to hold a team-building event that emphasizes collaboration and communication skills.
You can also improve team relationships by holding a social acticity, where people can get to know one another in a less formal environment. A personal bond formed outside of work can create the foundation for a much better relationship within it.
For more ideas, read our Bite-Sized Training™ session on team building.
Also, consider assigning rivals a joint project to get them focused on achieving the same goal. This will stop them from concentrating on their own work and give them the opportunity to learn how one another's efforts contribute to the team's success.
By forcing the collaboration, you give the rivals the opportunity to build rapport, and to increase their trust in one another. And, if they succeed, they might even decide to continue to collaborate on future projects.
You might be tempted to solve your problem by transferring one of the rivals off your team. However, the remaining person could strike up a similar relationship with another teammate! It's much better to address the issue head on, and deal with the consequences straightaway.
While competition between team members can often be beneficial, rivalries can damage morale and productivity if they get out of hand.
There are several strategies you can use to turn your team members' rivalrous tendencies into more positive behaviors. You can meet with each person to tackle bad behavior, establish clear boundaries, and avoid situations where the rivals are compared to one another.
Encourage more group collaboration by running team-building activities that require people to work together, or assign rivals a joint project to help them manage their differences and build rapport.
Apply This to Your Life
- Take a moment to examine your own behavior to make sure that you're not inadvertently creating rivalry among your team members. For example, do you have "favorites" in the office? Are there people whose personalities rub you up the wrong way?
- Impartiality is key to being an effective manager. Be sure not to give too much attention to one team member, and strive to treat everyone equally. For instance, if you give one person an extra vacation day to tend to personal matters, you should be willing to do the same for everyone else.
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