How to deal with work rivalries

Going toe to toe: your playbook for workplace rivalries

Her name was Camille…like the 1969 hurricane. We worked at the same nonprofit for just two years, but the thought of her mean-spirited maneuvering still rankles more than five years later. Ours was a mutual disaffection, though, and not one that resulted in the professional magic of, say, McCartney and Lennon, Venus and Serena or even Mad Men Campbell and Cosgrove.

The bane of your daily existence, wrong sweetener in your coffee, devil in the cube next door—what is up with the workplace nemesis? First of all, office rivalries are common and normal, so don’t fret too much over having a tale to tell about a galling coworker.

“People are intrinsically competitive, and there’s a natural human tendency to establish social esteem and prestige in situations where resources are not abundant,” says Ben Dattner, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and author of The Blame Game.

This here factory ain’t big enough for the both of us

Exactly how those rivalries play out, however, is dependent on a number of factors like personality, dynamics within or between teams and, of course, the corporate culture.

Things can get ugly, for example, when coworkers are pitted against one another. In that situation, Dattner says, a rivalry is a “symptom rather than a problem in and of itself.” And in cases where roles are undefined and employees are unclear on their territory, it would be more effective for a manager “to clarify what each person is responsible for, and hold them accountable for those things.”

(Light bulb moment)

That sounds way simpler—and more civilized—than the live-action version of this Bugs Bunny-Yosemite Sam solution. Nastygrams (been there) and Tuesday at Ten squabbles (done that) are no bueno for settling turf wars.

Divide and be conquered

Rivalries can also form within teams or between team members when managers promote a divide and conquer mentality. Rather than setting goals that may only be known to a single department (or even at odds with another department’s goals), Dattner says it’s more effective to set “superordinate goals” that can only be achieved by collaborating. This type of bigger-picture goal setting incentivizes coworkers to solve problems together, thus transcending teams and putting everyone in the position to “create healthy rivalries based on who has the best ideas and works the hardest.”

When they’re good, they’re very good

Of course, some internal rivalries, like Kobe and Shaq, are famously personal—and famously productive. One potential explanation might be found in this 2010 study. In a nutshell, researchers found that rivalry is “inherently relational” and that competitors’ (in our case—coworkers’) personal relationships may affect their behavior, motivation, and even performance. This can be a good thing if managers use it well, and I’m sure Phil Jackson would have plenty to say on the subject. But even for those of us without mad ball-handling skills or million dollar salaries, a little negative feedback from a close rival can go a long way. Just ask Shaq.

Still, Dattner says it’s way more effective for leaders to foster positive rivalries by creating work environments with a “culture of credit that allows people to raise each other up without covering for themselves or throwing others under the bus.” In that setting, everyone has a chance to win because colleagues—even rivals— can “create social capital for themselves while making the pie bigger for all.”

I wish I could say I was so enlightened in my dealings with Camille, but I wasn’t. I have vivid memories of frustrated emails, unsatisfying HR meetings and, eventually, pointed avoidance. Five years of personal and professional growth later, however, I can honestly say I wish her well. (Sort of.)

Post by Jill Coody Smits

Jill Coody Smits is an Austin-based freelance writer and proponent of research-backed communication. Interested in psychology, health, fitness, and human rights. Wife, mother, traveler, reader, dog-lover, unaccomplished athlete.