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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Help! I'm Too Competitive at Work

Dear Fran,

I have always been a competitive person by nature, and sometimes this has gotten in the way of me doing a good job. I’m easily distracted by what others are doing, and I’m constantly jealous of my colleagues’ work and progress. I build the “opposition" up in my head so much that I get extremely intimidated and frustrated. Sometimes I’ve even thought of ways to undermine the work of my colleagues—I’ve never acted on it, but it bothers me that I’ve thought of it. I really think this is the reason I didn’t get a promotion at my last job. 

I just started a new job and am determined to be as professional, focused, and hard-working as I can. Can you help me cope with the "jealousy bug?" 


Dear Competitive,

Your question reminds me of the brilliant play and film, Amadeus, in which Salieri, the official Court composer who obsessively envies Mozart’s infinitely superior musical talent, sets out to destroy the object of his frustration. Instead, of course, he ends up destroying himself.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy sense of competition—it’s a hugely important driver of innovation and advancement. But, self-defeating jealousy is a different matter altogether, and I guarantee no good will come of it.

Before you start to deal with your behaviors, it’s important to look at what triggers your competitive streak. Does it happen when someone else is praised? Is it related to something another person says or does? Does it occur only with your peers, or is anyone in the office fair game? And—does it just happen at work, or does it permeate your personal life as well?

Think about whether this could be related to low self-esteem. Maybe you become intimidated because you’re worried that, like Salieri, you aren’t as capable as the object of your jealousy in some way. If that’s the case, why not find ways to build your own confidence—learning new skills, earning an extra certification—and avoid the temptation of petty comparison? No matter what, comparisons are nothing but unhealthy and self-defeating.

To get to the root of the problem, think about whether this came from—something in your past, or even your childhood. Were you constantly compared to a sibling or friend? Did someone put you down? Were you bullied? If this is the case, it’s important to let go of the negative things that you’ve heard about yourself. It’s tough, but you need to look at criticism (constructive and otherwise) as a tool to improve yourself, not ammunition for fueling a pity party. Instead, make a list of your positive attributes and successes (work-related and not) and savor the good feelings these accomplishments brought. There are many good books on developing self-esteem, or you may even want to talk to a therapist.

Meanwhile, also consider whether you’re engaging in black-and-white thinking. For example, if a co-worker presents a great report at a meeting, do you automatically say to yourself, “well that’s it—she’s great and I’m a loser”? Here, you’ve not only made a comparison and put yourself down, you’ve also correlated two completely unrelated things, convincing yourself that if she’s great, you can’t be. Do you see how irrational this is?

Instead, focus on the fact that you are part of a wonderful team, and that there is room for more than one to succeed. Truly, the fact that someone in your department is having a shining moment probably has absolutely nothing to do with you. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that you’ve surrounded yourself with successful people, and that you have a boss who recognizes each of you when credit is due. Try coming up with a mantra like, “just because she did well on that doesn’t say anything at all about me,” and repeat to yourself in these scenarios.

Now, about distraction. What gets you so sidetracked? Are you plotting ways to undermine the competition, or simply allowing your mind to drift off into negative scenarios? Either way, these distractions disrupt your focus and undermine your productivity, and you put yourself at risk of losing big chunks or time. For serious concentration problems I recommend consulting a doctor, but there are simple ways to train your mind to focus better.

Try practicing some mindfulness techniques, like this one: Hold an ordinary object, a pencil or a piece of fruit, in your hand. Concentrate only on its physical presence: smell, color, shape, what it feels like holding it. You’re going to be distracted by other thoughts. Simply acknowledge these thoughts, but make no judgment about them, good or bad, wrong or right—just let them go. Perhaps even create an image in your mind of a river and send these thoughts upstream. Now bring your attention back to your object.

Try this for five or 10 minutes a day for at least six weeks, and look for a difference in your ability to stop automatically comparing yourself to others, and to start focusing on your own work instead of your colleagues’. Because that’s what’s going to set you up for success.

I wish you the best in your new job,


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Photo courtesy of Ambro.