Think Differently About Competition at Work

By Dr. Francis Eberle

Every spring I get reacquainted with my bicycle. For me cycling is recreational, social, competitive, and great exercise. While riding, cyclists talk, solve the problems, reminisce, “take a turn” at the front and wait if someone lags behind. The first group rides of the year often take a slightly different tone. The pace quickens when the road is flat, or someone will likely push themselves hard up a hill to get to the top before everyone else. On these rides everyone is checking their fitness in comparison with others as the season begins. Most do this to note their own personal expectation of fitness and not to try and beat someone else. It is a ritual that is repeated over and over at almost every level of cycling. 

Does this pattern sound familiar when you meet a new person at work? Do you perform an informal evaluation as to whether they will be an ally or competitor? Those early discussions can be critical, and some people use them as a competitive analysis of sorts. Some of my clients, who don’t naturally exhibit competitive behaviors, have asked me whether they should try to be more competitive. They seem to think they should be tougher and seek to compete, particularly if they are a leader. 

My response is to have them reframe competition as a way to achieve a personal goal. Being overtly competitive with others can create trust issues or conflict. It’s counterproductive if competitiveness detracts from achieving the overall goal. 

In Purposeful Collaboration: The Essential Components of Collaborative Cultures, The Institute for Corporate Productivityrecently found that high-performing companies are three times more likely to reframe challenges and develop a collaborative stance, as compared to those with lower performance.Here are three ideas for reframing work encounters.

Frame It As Learning
People often resort to debates because they don’t see the opportunity to learn from the exchange of ideas. This behavior can be interpreted as being competitive. Winning should not be the goal of a conversation. A noncompetitive interaction begins with questions and learning. The same behaviors are exhibited with teams. Problems can be seen as either a learning opportunity or a chance to prove you are right. Authors Brooks and Wood in the May 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review describe how questioning can be used to build an understanding of where you are and what others know. It improves interpersonal bonding and clarity of the problem. This is a collaborative stance versus a competitive one. Here are a couple ways to reframe as a learning:

  • Learn as much as you can about the other person and/or team through questioning before working on any problems. This provides you with data for personal connections and discussion topics.
  • Ask questions to discover and unlock ideas about issues or problems. This draws out their ideas and possibly their intentions. Think of the task at hand as an opportunity to learn. Then dive in with full knowledge.

Frame It As Motivations
What are your or your team’s motivations around competitiveness? What I mean is, what is driving you toward being competitive? Fortunately, an individual’s motivations can operationally be measured with a tool from TTI Success Insights. One motivator area measures your tendencies for desiring status, recognition and control over personal freedom or being commanding.  And conversely, your tendencies for being collaborative or driven by being in a supporting role and contributing with little need for individual recognition or being collaborative by bringing in others to work on the challenge. Knowing your commanding tendencies can be a flag for knowing how much you want control things. To reframe your desire for control, try to listen more. Some additional ideas are:

  • Identify your motivations for the situation and decide how you could increase or decrease those, giving you more flexibility in negotiations or with challenges.
  • Raise awareness about your team’s motivations and identify signals during discussions that their commanding motivations might be taking over.
  • Identify others who have high commanding behaviors and recognize any conversation with them could likely turn to conflict, as they may be looking look for an advantage. Adjust accordingly and change the frame from win/lose to win/win.

Frame It As Safety and Belonging
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Culture Code, as well as with Google’s recent study of high-functioning teams both highlight the importance of safety or belonging in a team. This is commonly referred to as trust, and in a trusting work environment you can still have disagreements or even competition without destruction of relationships. Teams that support each other during conflict will support each other, no matter the decision. They will even trust each other to make decisions without the whole group’s approval, demonstrating initiative. A few ways to do this:

  • Become more vulnerable. Admit to not knowing everything, ask for help and take it.
  • Seek opportunities to increase effective communication by talking less.  
  • Be transparent about what you need and what others can do to help you. Use the phrase, “It helps me when you…” as a way to ask for help from others. Such as, “It helps me when you send me what you are trying to solve in advance, so I have time to think about solutions.”

Being tough or competitive within an office doesn’t necessarily advance new ideas well, retain people, or improve the quality of the work done. Reframing competition as a testing or red teaming of the ideas creates a better outcome. Ultimately this exploration will support team safety, effectiveness and interactions so the collective goal is achieved.  

Like cyclists, we can compete in the office, but reframed to be exploring ideas and viewpoints, and supporting and developing collaborations will result in the best outcomes for everyone. Isn’t that what we really want?

To chat with Dr. Eberle about reframing, building trust, and healthy team competition, email him at