A competitive world offers two possibilities. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.
February 10, 2010 8:14 AM   Subscribe

I am, by nature, not a particularly competitive person. How does a non-competitive person survive (if not thrive) in a competitive workplace?

I work in what I would sometimes classify as "sometimes healthy/most of the time unhealthy" competitive environment. A good deal of politicking, snide comments here and there, and the overall sense that everyone is out for themselves, including my boss.

Although I often feel uncomfortable at work, I get the sense that it is teaching me how to survive in life, and that quitting wouldn't result in a better work environment, necessarily, as this type of situation seems to happen wherever you go.

My question is: how can I thrive in a work environment like this, and what are some things you have done to "put on a confident face" to put up with the highly competitive bozos out there?

Any help is welcomed!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
"Upward Nobility: How to Succeed in Business Without Losing Your Soul"

I read this years ago... and it's lessons, whislt somewhat light, remain with me.

posted by artaxerxes at 8:20 AM on February 10, 2010

Office cultures vary a great deal, I've worked in restaurants, publishing houses, and government offices that have various levels of "eat or be eaten" mentalities. A lot of it depends on the leadership of the organization. If you think that your boss, and your boss' boss are greedy, self-serving doucherockets, it may be time to start looking for a different company. If you have any friends in your industry who work for other companies, ask them about their perceptions of office culture where they live. It depends a lot on the nature of your industry, too. If you're in finance, though, you're pretty much fucked.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:03 AM on February 10, 2010

not a competitive person myself, and I've spent a few years working for a company that runs competitive tournaments. the entire staff are extremely competitive.

my 2 cents:

1. treat it like high school. unless it's outright harassment (of any kind. sexual, racial, threatening, etc...), don't go running to the nearest authority figure. they won't respect you, and supremely competitive people only respect someone who can take what they dish out.

-that said, if it's outright harassment, take the appropriate steps to report it. never let that shit slide, for any reason.

2. teasing, ribbing, casually aggressive speech should sometimes be met with a smile. you don't have to like the person, but getting infuriated or insulted at small jokes or insults may not endear you to your office mates, and it may make you a target. again, outright harassment should be stomped at every opportunity, though. (take that as a corrollary for all of these points.)

3. PAPER TRAIL PAPER TRAIL PAPER TRAIL. if you have an idea you want to start working on, and this involves telling someone, DO IT IN EMAIL. don't rely on personal speech, if they're competitive enough to steal the idea. keep a written account of every positive action you've taken, somewhere, and if you disagree about an approach, do so in meetings and emails (though respectfully.) you want a record of where you stood on every topic, so that you can point to it to say "this good thing was me. i was against this bad thing. see? right here." (this also applies for reporting harassment. paper trail at all times.)
posted by shmegegge at 9:17 AM on February 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don’t know if this will help you OP because we don’t know all the specifics of your workplace, but I am reporting something that worked for me along with anecdotal info from a previous competitve job (managers were insane/tried to pit us against other people/lied to us to try to get us to do things and people in other departments were insane/competitive). if anything there helps use it, if not, ignore it.

How new are you? Can you watch other people (is there someone or a few people staying out of this?) You may want to try going to lunch with someone like that just to get to know him or her. Are they hiring other new people? When those people get to your workplace, you could arrange a lunch…a lunch for the new people and go somewhere off site. In summary, I am suggesting that you form alliances/allegiances/friendships with a few other people. I think by nature people like to work together and form alliances, not work as lone person vs the rest of the office. Even if it is one or two people, it may make a difference.

For myself, I formed friendships/bonds and recognized common goals that those people in my lunch group had and we really used it to our advantage. For example, if competitive manager tries to pit you against others or push buttons to get you to flip….if you know everyone else involved, you can get your own data from those people and as a group, you can decide what response you give (it also depends what do you want? What do the other people want? But don’t let an outside entity push you). These alliances in the competitive environment also helped us…stand back and laugh and see the humor in it. Ultimately, we also recognized that we needed to get out and find new jobs that met our needs. We formed a great support group to find new jobs and acted as references for one another.

I get the sense that it is teaching me how to survive in life, and that quitting wouldn't result in a better work environment, necessarily, as this type of situation seems to happen wherever you go.

A lot of workplaces are not like that and they don’t have to be. Life doesn’t have to be that way, either. If you can, try to change it or select a more healthy environment.

posted by Wolfster at 9:46 AM on February 10, 2010

Based on this comment: "A good deal of politicking, snide comments here and there, and the overall sense that everyone is out for themselves" I'm making some assumptions about your workplace, and my advice is: The only way to win is not to play.

Stay above the gossip, politics, snideness, and competition (insofar as that is possible). Be the guy/gal with integrity who is always above the fray. Do your work competently and confidently. Typically what will happen is people will first, stop coming to you to snipe or gossip since they know you won't play; and second, START coming to you for advice and help since they know you're not playing games. Your competence also stands out more when you're not diluting it by playing politics and so forth. Your calm integrity in the center of their dramarama will make you seem like the calm, centered, competent go-to person.

When people come for the gossip and politics, good phrases include, "I don't know anything about that." "I don't really think it's any of my business, but I certainly wish Joe the best." "Mary? I've never had a problem working with her." (As well as compliments as much as you can give them -- "Every time I've worked with Sue she's done a bang-up job!") And when people say snide or competitive things, try stuff like, "Good for you, Joe, I know how hard to you worked to win the sales competition!" and "She's probably just stressed" (in response to "Sue is such a bitch!") and if it gets really inappropriate, "I don't really think this is an appropriate conversation," and remove yourself.

If your workplace is super-dysfunctional, this won't work very well. But if you're trapped in a place of politics and gossip, you CAN refuse to play and it DOES work. And if nothing else, it confuses the super-competitive when you congratulate them instead of compete with them!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:18 AM on February 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Folks have different takes on things, of course. But I'm not a very competitive person, either, and have often asked myself similar questions: how to thrive and excel in a competitive workplace (or other social setting). Here are some thoughts that work for me and might be helpful:

1. First, don't allow everyone else's sense of competitiveness to define you or stress you out. You are really, in the end, only competing with yourself. Even if you may have to take on a more competitive persona to function at work, remember that it is not what makes you who you are, nor is it what makes you important, ultimately.

2. Ally yourself with successful co-workers who are better able to navigate the shoals. This includes your peers who are star players and your supervisors (e.g., find a mentor). If you can build a coalition, you can somewhat insulate yourself from some of the worst excesses of a competitive environment and take advantage of a successful group dynamic of which you're a part, rather than having to be a star soloist.

3. Engage in good PR. To riff on Justice Hewart's maxim, one of my own maxims is that "It is not enough to be competent, one must also be SEEN to be competent." This means finding ways to blow your own horn in appropriate ways. You have a good idea? Let your supervisor know about it. You make your deadline? Explicitly say so at your next meeting. O course you'll need to find the right tone when you do this (nobody likes a braggart), but if you can communicate your successes in an affable way and place them in the context of the team's success, then you will get far more credit for the good things you actually do. Good PR is a force-multiplier for your competence.

4. Subvert the dominant individualist paradigm. If the culture is every man for himself, find ways to talk about and encourage the team. If someone is bragging about how they achieved something so amazing, congratulate him or her, but immediately place that into the context of the team's effort. Be visible and intentional about this. You can define yourself in a way that rises above individual success, as someone who promotes the team's success and, in that way is potentially even more important than a star individual. Become a promoter and an encourager of the team's morale, spirit and collective success and you may eventualy be seen as its moral leader, even if you are not as individually successful as some of the folks in the group.

Taken together, if managed well, these suggestions may help you find yourself the preferential promotion to supervisor when the job opens up. There are all kinds of group dynamics that prevent the most competitive, stellar performer from being the one that everyone wants to become the boss. Don't get me wrong: it's important to have a baseline of competence, of course. You need that to be able to contribute and be taken seriously and accorded respect by your co-workers. But you may become far more valuable to your company if you cultivate sound teamwork skills, motivational aptitude and a visible advocacy of team success, even if you're not the most outstanding player on the team.

By the way, I've found that this kind of coalition-building, good PR and team advocacy is far more helpful in navigating life's challenges than relying on my own supremely competent self all the time. :)
posted by darkstar at 11:45 AM on February 10, 2010

as this type of situation seems to happen wherever you go.

Seconding Wolfster in saying this really is not necessarily so. There is nothing wrong with leaving a working environment that you find hostile or unpleasant. I think you may find that smaller businesses, where cooperation is of greater necessity than competition, will suit you better.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:11 PM on February 10, 2010

« Older I scrubbed all the bad stuff away   |   Follow this ONE SIMPLE RULE and repair your immune... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.