MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you deal with a competitive colleague? is written by Gloria Cordes Larson, president of Bentley University.
Have you ever been convinced someone stole your idea from a meeting? Or maybe they’ve upstaged you in front of your boss? Competition, whether friendly or intentional, direct or indirect, happens in most work environments. In fact, I’d venture to say there are no workplaces without some level of competition in them. And that isn’t always a bad thing. Often times the root of a competitive nature is a confidence gap. For the competitive person, it’s a way to overcome their own lack of self-confidence. They are afraid someone will gain an advantage at their expense, so they try to get ahead of it.
Before joining Bentley University as its president, I worked as a lawyer in numerous law firms and government offices where I often saw people trying to gain a competitive advantage. Competitive coworkers in law firms and government, you say? You bet. My technique for dealing with competitive coworkers: I befriend them. I try to understand what they’re aiming to do, look at the good aspects of their challenging behavior and try to win them as an ally. Turning competitors into allies requires a deep level of empathy, an ability to find common ground and to build a new bridge with them. By doing this, I have been able to transform a colleague’s competitive nature into a team advantage.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely strategy involved with this endeavor. For example, when approaching a competitive coworker you can say, “You had a good idea last week. I have similar ideas. I’d like to join forces with you.” In some cases, you have to be willing to give up the personal credit for the good of the team. It’s more important to win together than to be right on your own and get the credit.
A great example of a group who were not competitive with each other is the U.S. women’s national soccer team. And what was the outcome of that teamwork? Winning the World Cup. Take Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd, for example. Abby is a hugely accomplished soccer player and, in fact, holds the world record for the number of international goals scored by a player – man or woman. But during the final game of the World Cup, Lloyd was the star and she also filled the captain role for most of her time on the field. But she quickly deferred to the players who came before her when it was their time to shine. When Wambach took the field, Lloyd handed her captain armband to her. In every interview, Abby and Carli would talk about the team rather than themselves.
So the next time someone seems competitive with you in the workplace, stop and think how you might turn the situation around for the benefit of your team and the company overall rather than taking it personally.
Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How do you deal with a competitive colleague?
3 reasons why competitive employees are good for business by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.
How to keep your cool with a competitive colleague by Kristin Lemkau, CMO of JPMorgan Chase.