When healthy workplace competition goes wrong

Pitting competing teams against each other is not always a productive strategy
Uniting against a common enemy in the workplace is not a productive business strategy.
Most reality TV shows transfix us by pitting competing teams against each other for a finite reward. It makes for great viewing, but when employees come together against a mutual enemy in the workplace, can it drive progress or is it a recipe for disaster?
In every office, employees bond over things that they have in common – their boss and office politics are often at the top of the list. It is from these interactions that alliances between co-workers form. Of course, the strongest teams are those that have a shared sense of purpose, and work towards a common goal. But when the commonality is about beating another team or person, or winning at another’s expense, it is likely to be destructive and counterproductive in the long term.


Sometimes particular teams or even entire departments become the “bad guy” in business. For instance, the finance department is sometimes labelled a blocker, forever clipping people’s wings and putting the brakes on ideas, given its inevitable (and usually invaluable) emphasis on cost control.
At other times, the enemy is an individual who is too ambitious, too direct or unpopular for any other reason. Harbouring a personal vendetta or singling individuals out can be dangerous, especially when the measure of success is when a rival fails.
In any office, the dangers of groupthink are very real, as situations can quickly escalate into every missed opportunity or failure being explained as someone else’s fault. The in-crowd/out-crowd mentality can very quickly become entrenched and counterproductive. This is never a foundation for collaboration or success.


Sometimes, rifts and feuds are tacitly encouraged as “healthy competition” in the workplace. However, when companies or teams are under pressure, simmering tensions can quickly become a problem. CEB research shows that, for an employee to deliver the best results they can, they have to be able to work productively with peers across different departments. At a time when people need to pull together and focus on the good of the business, it can quickly become clear where the divides are and who is unwilling to cooperate, ultimately threatening the greater good.
If you see alliances and feuds forming in your workplace, you should be prepared to do the following.
First, challenge your own perceptions. Reflect on your own judgements and experiences of working alongside “common enemies” in the business. Cast your emotional reactions aside and consider what you know about others’ roles and think about how you can learn from their skills and expertise.
Second, anticipate conflict. Devise questions in advance of meetings to help you better understand the viewpoints of others and the demands of their role. Do not get drawn into gossip, but do try to anticipate dynamics between different individuals. Think about out how you can neutralise possible points of contention or misperceptions.
Third, harness the need to achieve. Outline the objectives for each meeting at the outset. Work with your colleagues to establish common goals and shared interests – giving everyone the opportunity to contribute and challenge them – to ensure you’re all pulling in the same direction.
And fourth, make the enemy part of the solution. Encourage peers to talk openly about conflict, and the challenges and barriers that exist within teams and outside them. This conversation should be arranged in a safe environment with someone to facilitate the discussion. Afterwards, work together to explore improvements that bring everyone closer to achieving their goals.
It may at times seem impossible, but corporate disagreements and inter-workforce disputes can be addressed without outside intervention.
Jody Goldsworthy is director of consulting at CEB.

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