If competition is a mirror, what does it reveal about you?

I have always loved swimming. When I was a kid, I joined the local swimming club and competed in various events. I wasn’t the fastest swimmer, and I was happy when I won a bronze medal. But every year, I trained hard to win a points trophy because that meant I was constantly improving my personal best. I didn’t care much about beating others, I just wanted to beat myself.

One of my childhood friends was very different. She liked to win, no matter what. Something that hasn’t changed outside work over the years. A cruise holiday story shows just how competitive she is. She was in a friendly competition with other guests to win a very special prize – a cruise line key ring.

She did everything she could to win that key ring, including laying on top of and rolling over another male passenger she didn’t know to secure the win. The key ring ended up in the bin, but she will always treasure the memory of the win.

Luckily, as a senior leader in her organisation, she can separate her desire to win outside work from her behaviour as a leader at work. She knows when to collaborate and when to compete.

Competition can be detrimental to you and your workplace culture or it can be a catalyst for innovation and performance.

It’s an integral part of life, a force that can propel us forward, challenge us, and foster growth. Yet, it can also be a source of stress, conflict, and self-doubt. When we understand our own relationship with competition, we can recognise when it manifests in healthy or unhealthy ways.

This self-awareness is the first step towards harnessing the power of competition for your personal growth and well-being.

When you challenge yourself or others in a positive, productive, and respectful manner, you are engaging in healthy competition. You celebrate your achievements and learn from your failures. You recognise the strengths and contributions of others, and you cooperate when needed. You enjoy the process of competing, not just the outcome.

On the other hand, unhealthy competition is when you compete with yourself or others in a disrespectful, unfair, and destructive way. You focus on beating others and proving yourself superior. You feel threatened by others’ success and sabotage or undermine them. You are obsessed with winning, and you can’t handle losing. You ignore the rules, ethics, and consequences of your actions.

The reality is that many workplaces are highly competitive.

However, Netherlands researchers Kyriaki Fousiani and Barbara Wisse found that leaders in highly competitive work environments who view their power as a responsibility rather than a personal opportunity have more positive and higher-quality leader-follower relationships. Those relationships provide an opportunity to positively influence the culture of competition in the workplace.

If you think of competition as a spice, you’ll know that a little bit of spice can enhance the flavour of your dish, but too much spice can ruin it. You don’t want to add spice to everything you cook, and you don’t want to use the same spice for every recipe. You want to choose the right spice for the right occasion and use it in moderation. Similarly, you don’t want to compete in everything you do, and you don’t want to use the same competitive style for every situation. You want to choose the right type of competition for the right goal and use it in balance.

If you’re curious about your relationship with competition at work, you may wish to reflect on these three questions with curiosity and kindness:

1. Do you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to others?

If the answer is yes, stop and focus on your own strengths and achievements. Remind yourself of your unique value and contributions, and practice appreciating the value that comes from the diversity of other people’s contributions.

2. Do you feel threatened or envious of other people’s success?

Try congratulating and learning from them instead. Ask them for feedback and advice and share your own insights and experiences to build a relationship of mutual support and respect.

3. Do you find yourself breaking the rules or compromising your integrity to win?

Try pausing and reflecting on your values and purpose before acting. Ask yourself why you are competing and what you are hoping to gain. Consider the impact of your actions on yourself, others, and the organisation. Seek feedback from others, set personal standards and hold yourself accountable.

What have you learned about your relationship with competition?

Having recently enjoyed revisiting the Dune series, I will leave you to ponder these wise words from author Brian Herbert:

“In every competition, there are no winners or losers, only learners”.

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