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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Ways to Stand Up and Be Heard When You're on a Competitive Team

Who doesn’t love to work on a high-performing team? It’s motivating to work with smart, dedicated colleagues who constantly add value to projects and are quick to execute on their responsibilities, then ask, “What’s next?”

But in some high-performing teams, collaboration gets put aside as competition heats up. Co-workers play verbal ping-pong in meetings, constantly promote their achievements, and put in long hours to try to gain an edge over their colleagues.

Sometimes, it can seem easier to take a back seat while your teammates go head to head. But Linda Adams, President of Gordon Training International, says,“Silencing ourselves exacts a huge price.” When you adopt a passive attitude, your contributions and opinions get overlooked, and the team loses a valuable voice.

So what does it take to speak up and have a voice when you work in a highly competitive team?

When a participant asked that question in my recent webinar, “Finding Your Voice,” panelist Monali Jain leaped at the opportunity to offer some guidance.

And for good reason: Jain has spent her career working on high-performing, highly competitive teams. Her experience encompasses roles in software engineering, technology leadership, angel investing and consulting. “I’m working on a multi-million dollar project right now,” she said. “Everybody who is on the team is very competitive; that’s why they’re there.”

While it can be easy to be intimidated by these hard-charging, high-stakes environments, Jain has a great perspective on the benefits. “I am driven by competition, but more so by team success,” explains Jain. “Competitive people are driven by wanting to be better than before—so learn from them!”

To answer my webinar participant’s question—and perhaps your own—Jain offered these three suggestions for thriving on a highly competitive team.

1. Take Your Seat at the Table

The first step to finding your own voice in a highly competitive atmosphere is to show up with the right attitude. If you find yourself on such a team, embrace the experience.

“Once you’ve gotten into the team, it means you’ve got a seat at the table,” Jain says. “Now, use it.”

You might feel intimidated by the team at first, but realize you’re there for a reason. You’ve met the price of admission, so trust your particular skill set, and challenge yourself to speak up. “Make sure you contribute,” says Jain. “Contribute even if you’re not asked.”

2. Lean on Your Network

According to Jain, one way to increase your comfort level with speaking up in a competitive team is to build a very strong network.

Jain used the example of a time when her team was in a tough meeting, trying to justify a particularly big investment.

“We were about to make a multi-million dollar commitment and needed to know how it would pan out,” Jain says. “They asked tough questions, and we didn’t have answers.”

To find those answers, Jain reached out to her network for help, and because of the connections she had made, she was able to come back to her team with some new data points to look at. With this fresh perspective, the team was able to move beyond the impasse.

Ask yourself: Would you have those kinds of resources to draw on? If not, now is the time to begin building a network of high-caliber associates that complement (or exceed) the skills of your team. Then, you’ll have on-demand access to a network of confidantes and experts for support and answers when the pressure’s on you and your team to deliver.

3. Differentiate Yourself

Finally, it’s important to let the other team members know what you bring to the table as an individual as well as a team player.

“Differentiate yourself, so that you can complement others, not compete with them,” advises Jain. “When you’re in a competitive team, it means you’re there to collaborate. You’re there to help each other and supplement each other.”

Figure out what you can do differently than other team members that will be a uniquely valuable contribution. “For example, bringing in those data points was my contribution,” Jain shares.

Do this well, asserts Jain, and others will reach out to you for your expertise. “If you differentiate yourself, people will look up to you and make you a part of the team.”

Working on a team is complicated—even more so when populated with vocal, highly competitive colleagues. Contribute, seek support, and carve out your own your niche, and you’ll be able to establish your unique voice in your team.

Photo of rowing team courtesy of Shutterstock.