Competition gears up

As more firms advance the notion that workers must stay ahead in order to stay on, officemates joust in ways that can be cooperative - or cutting.

Ask Kevin Lister and Niels Nielson about the value of workplace competition and you get conflicting answers.

While Mr. Lister has thrived in an ultracompetitive environment, climbing to his company's top position in sales, Mr. Nielson had to leave a firm where that atmosphere prevailed - involuntarily, and with hoof prints on his back.

In today's fast-paced, high-tech world, a confident Lister says internal competition is a must. "Each member of the sales force works to carry their own weight, and strives to increase profits each month," says Lister, who has worked for Mindbridge, an intranet-software provider in Norristown, Pa., for the past year. "If you aren't driven to be the best in the sales force, then you are limiting yourself and the company."

Nielson counters that his experience going head-to-head with colleagues at a large food-service firm only serves to illustrate the counterproductive nature of intense internal competition.

"My time was spent on things that did not advance the cause of the employees or the company," says Nielson, who now runs his own human-resources consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

Like Lister and Nielson, experts hold dramatically different views on the value of competition in the workplace. But this much seems certain: With unemployment on the rise, wage freezes in effect for many who don't advance, and fewer opportunities for promotion, competition among co-workers is growing more intense.

In a recent study commissioned by Accountemps, 55 percent of executives surveyed said competition among co-workers is more prevalent now than it was 10 years ago. The study's authors suggest that the higher productivity levels currently enjoyed by corporate America are being driven by insecurity in the employment market. As such, a growing number of employers are fostering competitive environments.

"In Philadelphia, the job market is very bad," says Scott Testa, chief operating officer of Mindbridge. Like Lister, Mr. Testa attributes his company's consistent sales gains to internal competition. "I am not cold-hearted or mean," he says. "But the theory is that there's competition for your job and if you don't do it, then we'll find somebody else who can."

Experts tend to agree that friendly competition in a sales force can boost productivity and benefit the firm and its employees. In a general sense, creative bickering has a long history of improving work.

"[Albert] Einstein and [Danish physicist] Niels Bohr disagreed about nearly everything, but they were friends," says Howard Bloom, psychologist and author of "Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the Twenty First Century." "Bohr would send Einstein his papers. Einstein would blast the heck out of them," adds Mr. Bloom, in an interview via e-mail.

"Bohr would look at Einstein's critiques, and use them to make the papers stronger," he adds. "Did Bohr write the finished papers on his own? No, he had enormous help from a man who disliked his ideas - Einstein."

Even when collaboration among rivals veers into real competition, the results can be positive.

"Healthy competition encourages positive behaviors such as sharing information, teamwork, [and] reducing waste ... rather than negative behaviors such as hoarding information, withholding successful ideas from others, and 'protecting my turf,' " says Tom Connellan, author of "Bringing Out the Best in Others: Three Keys for Business Leaders, Educators, Coaches, and Parents."

But workplace competition that starts out friendly can wind up being destructive. "An overly competitive workplace can be toxic and unproductive," says Bud Bilanich, a management consultant and executive coach in Denver. "For example, an individual who does and says things to make a colleague look bad in the hopes that he will get a promotion is engaging in unhealthy and unproductive competition."

Some experts take an even harder line. "I have been studying this topic for more than 20 years and I have yet to find any evidence that competition produces any benefits that can't be realized with fewer damaging effects under noncompetitive conditions," says Alfie Kohn, a human-behavior expert and author of "No Contest: The Case Against Competition."

"Competition ... gets in the way of high-quality performance and reduces people's interest in what they are doing," adds Mr. Kohn. "Anytime I can only succeed when you fail, we both end up losing over the long haul.

"Competition is most destructive when we are trying to promote creativity or sophisticated thinking and problem-solving," Kohn adds. "[It] is not quite as destructive if you are promoting productivity."

Productivity, of course, is a top corporate aim. And fully escaping competition in today's workplace may be all but impossible. So the question becomes how to survive and thrive in these dog-eat-dog environments.

A spirit of cooperation is one way to demonstrate healthy competition, says John Zion, director of eastern US operations for the staffing firm Robert Half International, in Menlo Park, Calif.

"If a co-worker has too much on his plate and you have some time on your hands, view it as an opportunity to help, because word will get around that you are a team player," he says.

"Ultimately, doing good work and developing relationships is going to move you forward in your career," says Michael McIntyre, associate director of the Center for Organizational Research at the University of Tennessee's College of Business.

"If your goal is just to be the top salesperson, you can alienate people along the way by being hypercompetitive, but you look good when you make other people look good," he adds.

What if you are doing all the right things and your co-worker is not playing by the same rules? Mr. Zion suggests that a nonconfrontational face-to-face talk with the co-worker is the most appropriate first step, because sometimes people are unaware of their actions.

If that doesn't work, he says, it's time to set the record straight with management. "You have to tell your manager the facts in an objective rather than an accusatory way," says Mr. Zion. "Be careful to pick your battles. If it's a minor discretion, you probably don't want to raise it to a major confrontation."

Experts ultimately agree that the best competition is competition against oneself.

"Performing better than someone else isn't really going to do it for you over the long term," says Ben Dattner, an organizational psychologist in New York. "You really have to live up to your own potential and do things, not just because you want to impress people or because you want to win, but because it's what you enjoy doing."

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