Think about the people in your office you admire most: They’re likely ambitious , hard-working, and passionate. When you watch someone like this thriving in his or her environment, he or she will naturally encourage you to do the same. Driven people who work together will feed one another’s success, and, in the best case scenario, each member can shine and grow in his own right.
When those same people are pitted against each other, something entirely different happens. An unhealthy competitive culture takes shape and with it, stress and distrust. When these are prominent in the workplace, poor performance and unnecessary conflict are almost inevitable .
Your co-workers can be some of the most influential factors in your professional career. Pushing you to always improve yourself and your skills, they can help you get ahead. On the other hand, an exceedingly discouraging and toxic environment is one where your ideas aren’t heard, or, worse, are stolen.
Here are some concrete ways to recognize when hard work leads to friendly competition and increased motivation—and when self-serving workplace habits lead to people fighting to be in the limelight.
Competition’s Healthy if Appreciation Encourages You
Remember the last time you were given a “Great job” or “Amazing work!” on the last big project you spent weeks perfecting? Not only did it feel awesome at the time—it encouraged you to work hard next time, too.
Recognizing accomplishments is often seen as an important part of celebrating both your individual achievements as well as your team’s collective progress. Moreover, it’s a way to signal that meaningful results are valued every step of the way. When people make strides for their company, it’s encouraging for everyone to see that his or her efforts, along with the resulting successes, are bound to receive well-earned praise.
What’s unhealthy is if those achievements are rewarded disproportionately, or worse, ignored entirely. That sour feeling you get every time the same person gets noticed for turning in spreadsheets on time while you sit on the sidelines feeling overlooked? That’s a problem. Appreciating people for excelling in their work should be encouraging and inspiring. But when done poorly , empty or misdirected praise can have an opposite effect.
If you value your co-workers’ efforts and vice versa, you’re most likely a part of a constructive culture that enables and empowers everyone to feel proud bringing their unique skills to the table.
But It’s Unhealthy if Performing Poorly Keeps You Up at Night
If there are big consequences to not performing as well as your peers—rational or not—the stress and pressure you feel could cause your work to suffer. When this becomes a regular problem, issues can manifest in a number of ways, such as with sleep deprivation , irritability and aggression, or general burnout.
Think about the last time you worked on a project that felt so high-stakes that you did something drastic to produce results. Maybe the deadline was extremely urgent, for example, and you pulled an all-nighter because that was the only way to have a quick turnaround. Sure, you might’ve gotten things in on time with little sleep, but the number of typos in your final presentation was embarrassing at best.
Competition can drive success, but not if you lose yourself along the way. And when you’re deeply caught up in what could be at stake, how could you possibly focus on anything else? A schedule so tight and uncompromising is a huge red flag: You shouldn’t feel like your job or reputation is at risk if you don’t deliver results every single time. After all, a little flexibility and room for mistakes can be equally valuable.
Competition’s Healthy if Acknowledgement Is a Bonus, Not the Reward
Praise is good, but it can’t be everything. Even compliments will feel empty if it’s all you’ve been receiving for years of producing consistently great results. As Doug and Polly White write in Entreprenuer , “employees need to understand how what they are doing is contributing to that success.”
An extremely useful form of feedback is when you are given the tools to improve. Specific and constructive criticism allows everyone on the team to continually improve going forward—with no feelings harmed in the process. Being able to think about your own growth competitively helps you compare yourself to yesterday, last month, or last year in a meaningful way.
Of course, you shouldn’t expect a promotion every time you get something right, and even still, that’s not the only type of tangible reward out there. Skill growth and personal fulfillment ought to be pretty high up on your list of motivators—far above a public pat on the back from the CEO.
Competition’s Healthy if You Feel Comfortable Asking for Help So You Can Improve
If your co-worker gave a killer presentation last week, it shouldn’t feel weird asking her to quickly show you how she put it together. On the flipside, if your first reaction to sharing tips and tricks is feeling guarded, you should question where that suspicion comes from.
In a cooperative, competitive office setting, employees should feel comfortable showcasing their skills and sharing them with those around them. There’s much to be gained from genuine collaboration.
According to Alfie Kohn, author and speaker on human behavior , such an environment is highly productive in helping people “to communicate effectively, to trust in others, and to accept those who are different from themselves.”
But It’s Unhealthy if You’re So Intimidated by Your Colleagues That They Feel Like Strangers
Knowing next to nothing about the people you spend 40 hours per week with is a sign that work is all there is worth talking about. When co-workers are completely closed off from one another socially, competition dominates their relationships, and the seeds of a toxic environment take root.
If you couldn’t care less about who your peers are when you all clock out and leave at the end of the day, you may be in such a place. According to Kohn, that’s a “recipe for hostility,” and, it’s obviously not a pleasant situation to find yourself in. Because the definition of competition requires that very few people can win—meaning the majority of people involved will lose—you want to be careful you’re not endorsing these practices in your day to day.
Competition’s Healthy if You Enjoy Collaborating But Insist That Your Ideas Are Heard
Group projects are a great environment for getting a temperature check on your company’s competitive culture. A healthy setting—one that breeds confidence and pride in one’s own abilities and ideas—encourages you to self-advocate and work in dialogue to get to a solution. On the other hand, a toxic community is one that feels stifling at best.
No one’s expecting you to be BFFs with the whole team, but you shouldn’t be feeling jealousy or resentment toward a colleague so much so that it blocks the natural flow of communication.
Next time you’re working in a group, think about how easily—or not—you’re able to contribute to the conversation. If it’s easy to jump in when it feels right, and to challenge one another respectfully, then yours is a team that values the process as much as it does the results.
When it comes to colleagues who challenge, support, and encourage you (as opposed to ones who are only in it for themselves), competition is about collective motivation and growth more than it is about winning. And when things are especially difficult in the office, it can make all the difference to have a team you know you can fall back on.
Photo of woman talking to colleague courtesy of Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images.
Caroline Liu is a freelance writer, graphic designer, and computer programmer studying at Wesleyan University. She is pursuing majors in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Computer Science in order to bridge her passions for tech, design, and social justice. Learn more about Caroline on her website or follow her on Twitter.More from this Author