How to Handle Unhealthy Competition in the Workplace

By Diane Domeyer, Executive Director, The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing interactive, design, marketing, advertising and public relations professionals with a variety of firms.

A little friendly workplace competition never hurt anyone, right? Chances are good you’ve experienced it in your career, where friendly rivalries push two or more creative professionals to up their game.

According to new research by The Creative Group, 85 percent of the managers surveyed rated the creative employees at their company as somewhat or very competitive. What’s more, 44 percent love competition and feel it boosts productivity.

But it’s not so nice when things go too far. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said excessive competition hurts productivity, and 49 percent said a former or current colleague has tried to make them look bad on the job. When colleagues do whatever it takes to be top dog, the results are often resentment, lack of trust and an unpleasant work environment.

Is your agency or creative department a bit too cutthroat for comfort? And what can you do when a fellow employee tries to step on you in their climb to the top?

Dealing With Overly Competitive Colleagues

The advertising and marketing managers we surveyed are somewhat divided on their advice as to what creative professionals should do when coworkers try to sabotage them. Fifty-three percent prefer the direct approach of confronting the offender, while 34 percent feel it’s wiser to notify that person’s boss. A small minority recommends alerting colleagues to the situation (8 percent) or simply doing nothing (5 percent).

The reality is that there isn’t a single ideal solution for handling people who put themselves first at your expense. Instead, deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Here are some examples of unhealthy competition and what you can do about it:

  • A Coworker Belittles My Work. It can be awkward and embarrassing when a colleague mocks your designs or ideas, especially when it occurs in a team setting or, worse, during a client meeting. But rather than lobbing back a scathing comment about their work, be the adult in the room. Ask them to give you constructive criticism on how you could improve the work. If insults are the only things they can offer, then they’re the one who looks bad — not you. Either way, seek out the offender afterward for a private meeting and respectfully ask them to speak to you — and about your work — in a more professional tone.
  • A Coworker Sabotages My Project. It’s perfectly normal to feel furious when this happens, but don’t go running to your boss with accusations. After cooling off, ask a trusted colleague to take an objective look at the situation and give their opinion. Is there a chance the coworker isn’t a saboteur but simply made an honest mistake? Or that you were being too prideful and didn’t see the situation objectively? If it does seem like an honest mistake or misunderstanding, approach them and calmly explain how they’ve set back your project. If you truly believe their action was intentional, gather the evidence and objectively present it to your boss, also asking for constructive feedback; allow them to make the final judgment call.
  • A Coworker Takes Credit For What I Do. Before you start pointing fingers (and potentially burning bridges), take some time to reframe your approach. Asking questions about the work gives your coworker the chance to explain themselves without putting them on the defensive, while still letting them know you’re fully aware of the situation. Once they’ve given their side of the story, you can better decide whether to bring this situation to your manager’s attention.

At the end of the day, only you can decide how much competition you want and can tolerate. If your productivity and mental health start suffering due to what you feel is an unhealthy workplace environment, it may be time for a new challenge. Just make sure you thoroughly evaluate a company’s organizational culture for this type of behavior before accepting a job offer.