The High Stakes Of Rivalries At Work

Whilst many workplaces today trumpet collaboration and cooperation among colleagues, a bit of rivalry is probably inevitable.  When rivalries are intense, often the most common emotion is one of envy.  A paper published a few years ago highlighted the destructive characteristics of envy, especially among employees with relatively large egos.

“Suppose your supervisor gives your coworker a raise and not you, a raise you feel was given for an arbitrary reason,” the paper says. “You would be more likely to undermine your co-worker as a means of expressing this hostility.” As for the high self-esteem individuals, “It’s the narcissism effect,” it continues. “Not only is the raise given to the other person unfairly, but you feel you should be getting [an even higher raise] because you believe you deserve it.”

The paper suggests that there are three factors that underpin our professional jealousy:

  1. Are we out performed by a colleague?
  2. Do we care about the area where a difference has occurred?
  3. How close is the reference point to whom we are envious?

Dangerous rivalries

The implications of such emotions were highlighted in a recent paper that explored the impact rivalries had in the high-octane world of motor racing.  The authors examined when rivalry can spill over into unsafe behavior on the track.

They investigated every crash in the Formula 1 World Championship series between 1970 and 2014 and found that crashes are far from random and nearly always occur between drivers of a similar status.  Indeed, drivers who crashed were likely to have overlapping patterns of wins and losses during that season.

The authors believe that their findings have clear parallels with the business world, and that conflicts occur between colleagues who are comparable in terms of rank and status.  These conflicts tend to harm both parties by both consuming large amounts of time and attention, whilst also portraying them in less than professional tones.

Keep your enemies far away

Whilst it’s tempting to think that keeping rivals close together can help to break down barriers to understanding, a study from a few years ago suggests that is actually the worst strategy to deploy.

The researchers used the renowned bear pit of the US Senate as their petri dish.  They analyzed the behaviors of senators over a 36 year period from 1973 to 2009 to see how they engaged with their ideological rivals.

They found a fascinating pattern begin to emerge.  There seemed to be a direct link between the amount of contact rival senators had with one another and the closeness of their voting record.  This was found to be particularly pronounced on issues that were very divisive.

“Conventional wisdom says interpersonal contact between people will foster collaboration and consensus,” the authors say. “We found that increasing physical contact between people who have opposing and public political identities can instead promote divergence of attitudes or behavior. This tendency is further amplified in environments involving high conflict, which makes political identities more salient.”

So in other words, the more people with different opinions mingled with each other, the more divergent their actions became.  A bit like trying to mix oil with water.

The enemy without

Another strategy might be to highlight a potential rival outside of the organization.  For instance, a disruptive startup or a rapidly changing buying pattern among your customers could be used to focus the attention of the internal rivals on the external threat.

Even this strategy is not without risks however, as a study from Brigham Young University found that highlighting an external threat can encourage unethical behavior.  It found that when employees perceived they were up against an intense rival, they often engaged in unethical behavior as they viewed their environment as one in which the ‘gloves were off’, and therefore anything goes.  It’s a tactic to be used with caution therefore.

Perhaps a safer tactic is to encourage employees to engage in something known as anticipatory self-discipline.  This encourages us to remember that our behaviors and actions are ultimately our own responsibility, and therefore rivals can only spur us down a negative path if we let them.  In such circumstances, we should reflect on our core values and stay true to the person we desire to be, which is ultimately all we can ask of any of our employees.

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