How to Navigate Promotion and Competition in the Workplace | Promotion and Performance Series

How to Navigate Promotion and Competition in the Workplace | Promotion and Performance Series

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Where you have people, or in this case employees, you will have competition. It’s inevitable. Is competition in the workplace good, or bad? Well, it really depends. There can be healthy competition in the workplace, but there can also be unhealthy competition. Here we take a look at the differences.

Healthy Competition in the Workplace

Competition is healthy when it “positively promotes higher performance of many individuals,” says Lilith Christiansen, VP of onboarding and employee engagement, with SilkRoad. Ideally, in any workplace, healthy competition should be the goal.

Kris Hughes manages social media and content for Austin-based project management software company, In previous roles with digital publishers Wide Open Media Group and Rant Media Network, she managed large teams of content creators while also maintaining her own individual contributor responsibilities.

“I’m a strong believer in the value of competition in the workplace, but also believe this competition needs to exist within a framework where it’s healthy and productive, and not detrimental to relationships between co-workers, or to the overall morale of the office,” Hughes says. The greater extent to which organizations can frame the criteria for promotion in concrete ways, she says, the less likelihood for competition to become unhealthy. “Concrete, numbers-driven, quantitative goals drive individuals to compete at their highest level, using the tools to which they have access, but also to not cross that line into unhealthy competition where they are hindering the efforts of their competitors,” she says.

She acknowledges, though, that this may be more difficult in some types of jobs or professions than others. But, she says, “an effort should be made, if possible, to ensure the playing field is as level as possible” to bring out the best in those who decide to compete for a new role. “When lines are clear, there isn’t room to cheat or bend the rules, and the most talented people will naturally rise to the top,” she says.

For senior management and the HR department, keeping the peace in a situation where internal candidates are competing for a promotion is critical. After all, the best outcome would be that the best candidate would win the opportunity, the other contenders would recognize the wisdom of that decision and all could go along working together happily ever after.

Of course, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes internal competition can rise to unhealthy levels.

Also read: 10 Things Smart People Do to Enhance Their Reputation at Work 

Unhealthy Competition in the Workplace

Certainly, competition in the workplace can be unhealthy. One has only to look to the ongoing reputational damage facing Wells Fargo since news broke that its competitive internal practices led employees to create unauthorized bank and credit card accounts to artificially inflate their results.

As Christiansen notes, competition is “unhealthy when people feel they are pitted against each other for an individual role.”

A Harvard Business Review article, The Pros and Cons of Competition Among Employees, explores the issue and shares the results of research indicating that when competition makes employees feel good, it tends to be good. Conversely, when competition makes employees feel bad, or anxious, it is more likely to not only be bad, but also more likely to result in unethical behaviors. “The looming negative consequences of lagging behind can trigger anxiety and prompt people to resort to mis-selling, fraud, and lying to customers,” she writes.

Both organizations and individuals have an opportunity to rise above petty and negative competition in the workplace and work toward an environment where competition is healthy and used as an opportunity to help employees develop and grow in their careers. Rather than looking for win/lose alternatives, seeing a win-win (or ideally, a win-win-win) can be a great goal to strive for.

Also read: Why Selling Yourself Doesn’t Get You the Job or Promotion | Promotion and Performance Series

Taking the Healthy Path

Diane Rosen is an attorney with Ortoli Rosenstadt LLP, and the co-founder of Compass Consultants, a practice that brings the science of positive psychology to workplace training and career development. “Competition is often framed as a zero-sum proposition—‘my win is your loss’ and vice versa,” says Rosen. Instead, she says, it can be helpful to view “winning” as “a spectrum of outcomes, essentially rewarding process and incremental advancement.” This might be done by “structuring compensation to support modest rewards, to incentivize employees rather than having one big prize.”

There are clearly situations in the workplace where there can be many “winners” – bonus distributions, for instance. In other cases, only one individual will “win.” For example, obviously, promotion opportunities mean that one individual will be selected to move into the position—e.g. to “win.” But, might there be other incentives for those who did not get the promotion? Yes. In fact, creating a climate where upwardly mobile employees, even those who didn’t get the prize this time, can move toward future success—with your organization or another—can create a win-win-win environment.

As Rosen suggests: “Softer rewards can be incorporated, such as offering professional development opportunities, leadership training and initiatives, coaching, responsibility for projects that showcase strengths, etc. When managers can broaden their vision to imagine multiple, contemporaneous models of success, everyone can win.”

For upwardly mobile career professionals facing competition from peers or colleagues, Christiansen recommends focusing on “building one’s own skills and building a collaborative team environment.” It is just as important, she says, “to recognize where you have less proficiency and partner with someone that fills that gap to accomplish more together.”

The bottom line: collaborate, don’t compete—even when a promotion is on the line. Finding a win-win-win solution can benefit you, your competitors, and your organization.

See full series on this topic: Letter from the Editor: Promotion & Performance Series 

Looking for more Guidance on Navigating Office Culture?
Check out our Collection of Organizational Culture Articles

Lin Grensing-Pophal
About the Author
Lin Grensing-Pophal

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer with a wide range of writing credits for various business and trade publications. In addition to freelance writing for trade journals and publications, Grensing-Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations, to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends and more.

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