A little friendly competition never hurt anybody. The problem is, people don’t know who they’re competing against – at least, not in the workplace where competition can be fierce, a new study concludes.
According to researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, employees have a tough time differentiating between their allies and those who have singled them out as competition.
“We looked at whether people understood what other people in the workplace thought of them,” study co-author Hilary Anger Elfenbein said in a statement. “You tend to know who likes you. But for negative feelings, including competitiveness, people had no clue.”
To determine this, researchers ran two studies.
The first surveyed salespeople at a Midwestern car dealership, an environment where competition was normal and encouraged.
The second included surveys from more than 200 undergraduate students in 56 separate project groups. They were asked similar questions about their co-workers and what they assumed those people thought of them.
After analyzing the responses, researchers found people were clueless as to who had negative feelings towards them and who considered them competition.
“Some people show their competitiveness, some people you can tell have it out for you, but others have it out for you and act like they’re your close friend,” says Elfenbein. “Those two effects wash out, and people on average have zero idea about who feel competitively toward them.”
Elfenbein and her team speculate two reasons as to why this might be.
The first, they say, may be because they want to hide their feelings in an effort to be polite towards their co-workers. Also, the concept of reciprocity may play a role.
Another 2014 study, however, also looked into workplace competitiveness and how it impacts workers.
Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that while men benefit creatively when in a competing workplace setting, women do not.
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“When contributed less and less to the team’s creative output when the competition between teams became cutthroat, and this fall-off was most pronounced in teams composed entirely of women,” says lead study author Markus Baer in a statement. “If teams work side by side, women tend to perform better and even outperform men – they’re more creative.”
For Arturo Gallo, content manager at Monster Canada, the results of the study aren’t surprising.
“We have seen that there is a lot of competition in the modern workplace,” he says. “Competitiveness is always in the air when people are working towards the same goal. Competition can be healthy if it inspires us to do our best, but it can become troublesome when it’s secretive and leads to people feeling blindsided.”
But, Gallo says, there is a grey area when it comes to competitiveness in the workplace.
“There is definitely such a thing as healthy competition,” he says. “It motivates workers to keep moving and exceed goals and expectations… However, there are times when it can get to be too much and affect teamwork, culture and even simple work tasks.”
Arturo adds that it’s up to managers and bosses to create a friendly competitive environment, one where collaboration and teamwork is rewarded just as much as individual goal targets.
“The last thing you want to do is create an environment that isn’t inclusive to every working style,” Gallo says. “Not everyone is a born competitor or driven by competition, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. If you find that your workplace values competition above teamwork, it may be time to seek out a new role in which teamwork takes the top prize.”