The Challenge of Working with Competitive Colleagues

From time to time there is competition in every team, and sometimes it can be healthy and lead to improved work quality. But on other times, competition can simply get in the way of the work or become divisive.

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From time to time there is competition in every team, and there will be in yours. It stands to reason that ambitious and talented team members will want to demonstrate that they have plenty to offer, and sometimes they will compete with one another to do so. But the trick as a team members lies in knowing the difference between galvanising, productive, healthy competition and damaging, destructive, unhealthy competition.

Knowing when its getting out of hand - and being able to draw the line - is just as important as knowing how to let iron sharpen iron. Colleagues who like to compete tend to regard conflicts in which they participate as contests, the contest being one between opposing positions and the people who hold them. So, it follows that truly competitive colleagues regard their team colleagues as opponents if they happen to hold differing views to them on an issue. This way of doing things can lead to productive debate – iron does sharpen iron – but it can also spiral into unhelpful, energy sapping discussions which fragment teamwork rather than resolve the issues under discussion.

So, at what point do you decide that the competitive behaviours you see on display in your team are becoming unhealthy rather than healthy? I hope that the following ideas, which I have adapted from K. W. Thomas and G. F. Thomas (2004) Introduction to Conflict and Teams, will give you food for thought and help you make that judgement call wisely.

Competitive colleagues tend to be tough-minded, frank and courageous in expressing their views. They want to generate momentum on an issue and can put their views out there out fearlessly. In this mode a competitive team colleague is likely to use behaviour which includes asserting their point of view, defending the ‘rightness’ of their opinion, advocating their position and challenging other positions. And all of that is fine if it is contributing to a resolution of the underlying issues, and to momentum being generated towards finding a way forward. But, this method of approaching conflict can also come over to others as a belief that their position is right and that hard hitting candour is required to challenge any other point of view. When this happens, and other members of the team baulk at dealing with someone who thinks their point of view is the only one to hold on the issue and all other opinions are inherently incorrect, the impetus of the debate can alter from galvanising and productive towards edgy and uncomfortable.

Competitive team members who let their desire to compete spill over into counter-productive challenges can come over as simply not listening to their colleagues or to any view but their own. They can end up monopolising debates, over-riding agendas for meetings with their own topics, lecturing their colleagues and responding to all comments and input from others with counter-arguments. The unhealthy competition they engender results in little listening, one team member interrupting or talking over another’s input, and team members ignoring, downplaying or ridiculing others’ valid contributions. Competitive team members who let their instinct to compete cloud their contributions to team endeavour can also display anger or contempt for others’ input, make personal criticisms, dismiss colleague’s input and even issue threats. They can hold up decisions that are going against them by refusing to cooperate. All of these outcomes hinder a team from making quality decisions, achieving quality outcomes and working well together.

It seems to me that the integrity with which a team member decides to compete is the key here. If the team member who is really sticking to their guns is doing so because they truly believe that in that situation, over that issue, at that point in time the only way forward for the team and its work is the position they are advocating, then fine, they do deserve to be heard, and their stance deserves respect. Their argument may still not win the day, but it deserves to be heard and to be seriously evaluated. However, if the team member who is loudly advocating their position to the exclusion of all other positions is doing so simply to win whether their argument is compelling or not, that is quite another matter. How do you tell the difference?

I think the difference lies in the quality of arguments used. Perhaps you could identify a recent example where one of your colleagues, or you, took a position and won’t budge. If their arguments, or yours, contained the following features then the chances are the arguments were put forward with integrity and even if that position was unpopular it was made for reasons which had the quality of work at the heart of it. The features to look out for include:

  • A clear statement of the facts, backed up with one's opinions about those facts, and a clear recommendation which follows neatly on from those facts and opinions.
  • A willingness to listen and respond to other colleagues' input and points without feeling the need to alter one’s position or change one’s views.
  • A clear reiteration of the conclusion and the recommended way forward.
  • A willingness to remain supportive of others colleagues’ concerns and issues, verbally acknowledging their validity and responding to them, while also sticking to the merits of one’s recommendation.
  • A clear focus on keeping the debate about the issues rather than the personalities or a desire to win.

Only you, as a colleague in a team, can determine when to say enough is enough given the characters you work alongside, the atmosphere generated by the competitive behaviours you observe (or contribute to) and the quality of decisions and work that are produced as a result. I hope that these ideas can help you reach that decision point quicker and more effectively in future so that team debates which are characterised by competitive behaviour remain productive and effective, and don’t descend into fruitless or destructive time wasting.

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Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at