5 Ways to Handle Work Rivals

As the rough times continue, experts worry that employees may see teammates as competitors. How to quash budding workplace rivalries.

The entire team dialed into the CEO’s remarks and heard, despite progress this summer, earnings were still in distress and a major “reduction in headcount” was likely. Almost immediately, team members did the calculations in their heads and realized that they were no longer just teammates—they were about to become rivals.

The pandemic-induced economic disaster has made things that much harder for employees at all levels, but experts worry that the longer it lasts, the more it will pit coworker versus coworker. The economic uncertainty is bad enough, but some of the efforts companies have instituted to survive could create something akin to a combination of Lord of the Flies and Glengarry Glen Ross. The isolation from many people working remotely, combined with stress from health issues and many kids still schooling at home, only increases the pressure. “It’s harder to know where one stands than it used to be, and the stakes are so much higher,” says Susan Snyder, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and global leader of the firm’s Top Team Performance practice.

Usually, competition among coworkers isn’t a bad thing. In a recent survey of 1,000 US office workers by the work software company ResumeLab, 78% believed that it’s beneficial to have healthy competition at work. But it can also backfire on teams—and ruin careers—when it becomes too toxic. Here are some steps to contain any unhealthy rivalries you may see yourself forming around you.

Admit you’re going to need help.

With threats of layoffs and furloughs, employees at all levels may fall into the trap of thinking they have to complete a project alone. That mindset is a mistake, says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. There’s no way anyone alone can defeat the obstacles the pandemic has thrown in front of organizations, forcing colleagues to actually need each other more. “Be available when reasonable requests are made from your colleagues to assist them,” says Val Olson, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

This type of thinking may require some “mental jujitsu,” Snyder says, because many people, even senior executives, don't necessarily ask for help. It may mean having honest conversations about with an existing work rival.

Be nice over Zoom.

The pandemic has eliminated the casual chats at the watercooler or elsewhere in the office, but some experts believe it has opened up new avenues to have authentic conversations with coworkers. Everyone is seeing one another’s homes, pets, and families—be nice, experts say, and ask about them.

It’s not being nice for courtesy’s sake, either. Being authentic yourself can help others be their authentic selves as well. Most people have multiple identities that they use depending on context, but creating casual interactions on virtual calls with coworkers can help them feel like they don’t need to have their “work persona” on. Having a cohesive identity can have positive consequences when it comes to rivalries. In an experiment by professors at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University, people who tended to separate their identities were much more prone to cheat than those who were primed to integrate their identities.

Say “we’re in this together.”

In the same vein, experts say it’s important for anyone with management responsibilities to try to build a sense of shared commitment and purpose. Managers should be as transparent as possible with their employees, give them honest feedback, and praise teams (not just individuals) when they do things well. Don’t publicly castigate poor performers, either, since that could encourage others to pile on. “Almost all businesses are in the hole, and the only way out of this is to innovate, and to innovate is to collaborate in the white spaces,” Snyder says.

Tell them to zip it.

If you notice that coworkers are starting to become overly sarcastic or passive-aggressive, refuse to collaborate, or start pushing others (or you) around, it’s best to acknowledge it. Experts say that if those issues are left unaddressed, a spiteful workplace rivalry will manifest into a major issue. Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes. Other times, HR needs to get involved.

This step might be optional for ordinary employees, but it’s essential for managers and senior executives. If leaders see their direct reports fighting, they have to step in, Snyder says. Give straight feedback to both rivals and tell them to show respect and work together. “There are bigger stakes than who gets the better job. We don’t have the oxygen for rivalry,” she says.

If all else fails, just work.

The best way to make a point is to be good at what you do. So while defusing workplace rivalries is the best option, if it’s irresolvable just work hard to prove yourself. This way, you are likely to win respect from your critics and rivals. “Be a champion of other people and don’t give in to jealously or fear,” Olson says. If you do lose your job (because of a rival or otherwise), your experiences and work habits will help you find an equivalent or better role elsewhere.