Working Alongside Competitive Team 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.

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 lies in knowing the difference between galvanising, productive, healthy competition and damaging, destructive, unhealthy competition.

Knowing when it’s 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 behaviour you see on display in your team is 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. They are likely to assert their point of view, defend the ‘rightness’ of their opinion, advocate their position and challenge other positions. And all of that is fine if it is contributing to a resolution of the underlying issues. But, this method of approaching can backfire. 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, the impetus of the debate can alter from galvanising and productive towards edgy and uncomfortable.

It seems to me that the integrity with which a team member decides to compete is the key issue here. If the team member who sticks to their guns is doing so because they truly believe that the only way forward for the team and its work is the position they are advocating, then fine. They deserve to be heard, and their stance deserves respect. Their argument may still not win the day, but it needs to be evaluated. However, if the team member who is loudly advocating their position to the exclusion of all others 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 opinion and a clear recommendation which follows neatly rom the facts and opinion.
  • A willingness to listen and respond to other colleagues’ input and points without feeling the need to alter position or change views.
  • A clear reiteration of the conclusion and the recommended way forward.
  • A willingness to remain supportive of other colleagues’ concerns and issues, verbally acknowledging their validity and responding to them, while also sticking to the merits of their own 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 draw the line given the characters you work alongside, the atmosphere generated by the competitive behaviour 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.