Whether it's your boss, your spouse or your friend, work can make people competitive. Here's how to handle it.
Success

Don’t back down. This is how to deal with hypercompetitive people at work.

In social situations, we have all met the dreaded “one-upper.” If you went on vacation to Colorado, they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. If you got a promotion at work, they were just made chief operating officer. If you prepared a nice dinner the other night, they have an absolutely amazing five-hour recipe for saddle of rabbit with parsnip puree that you have to try.

Unfortunately in the workplace setting, you can’t push your office chair away every time your competitive colleague enters the meeting. Though you may instantly have your guard up around those who seem to always want to be the best-of-the-best, brace yourself: You need them. In fact, every company needs this type of personality.

Why competitive people make us better

As Los Angeles-based psychologist, Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., explains, because competitive individuals are proactive, productive and creative they evoke energy into the working environment.

“Competitive people get things done and have much self-discipline, perseverance, and stamina, typically not giving up easily in the pursuit to be the best at whatever they are aiming for. Because competitive people are frequently very motivated and perform at a high level, they can often inspire others to function and perform to the best of their abilities as well,” she explains.

The pitfall, of course, is how they handle themselves in both professional and personal settings. Because they’re so laser-focused, they can forget their aggressive approach can be intimidating and at times, anxiety-inducing for others. Faced with competitive people, even some smart and motivated workers may decide that the best way to thrive is to not compete at all, rather than to compete and risk losing. But competitive people aren’t trying to destabilize morale. They’re trying to do what they do best, and they don’t know when to stop. 

“They can be so used to being competitive that it is hard for them to know when and how to turn this part of them off. They can always be competing even in those situations and with those people in which it isn’t appropriate and could be damaging to their relationships and to themselves,” Thomas tells Ladders. ”A competitive person may be difficult to handle because competitive people often do not know how to work as a team and don’t really bond that well with others since they frequently are trying to one-up and do better than them.”

If you struggle with dealing with folks who subscribe to competitive mindsets, consider these tips from experts on how to befriend and handle situations as they arise, no matter if it’s your co-worker, mentor or friend.

Your friend in your same field who is always asking for contacts

Imitation might be a sign of flattery, but if one of your friends wants to create the exact same side hustle you’ve worked years at building by snagging your contacts, you might feel like you’re being used for your success, instead of your friendship. Dr. Thomas says not only do you want to protect your career and those professional relationships you’ve developed but your friendship, too. A competitive nature between two close pals can quickly become a recipe for petty fights and conversations that center around a single topic. Dr. Thomas says it’s best to come from a place of support, while also standing strongly behind the client base you’ve nurtured.

“You need to be firm and respectful and let your best friend know that you believe in his or her ability to make his or her own contacts and that it feels much better and is healthier for your friendship to separately work hard to to achieve professional success rather than rely on each other for leads and contacts,” she says.

If your manager is competitive

Though your boss is meant to be your motivator, helping you discover and fine tune impressive skills that help you grow, sometimes managers can become competitive with their employees. Especially if they see you on their turf, you may sense a new vibe. This is when executive coach and author, Tina Mertel, encouragers workers to try to step outside of yourself to catch a glimpse into your supervisor’s perception.

“This is where you can put on your teflon suit and tell yourself that it’s not personal. The more you can mirror back your boss’s goals and needs, the better. They will know you are on the same page. You don’t have to change your personality, but when you are with the boss be sure to show your understanding that they want to win, and what you are doing to help,” she says.

If you have a co-worker at your same level who is competitive

Being a team player isn’t an attitude that comes easily to everyone. And if one of your co-workers always has to be in the spotlight, getting the gold-star nod of approval from your manager, you may constantly feel animosity in your direction. Not only could this indicate that your colleague feels threatened by you, but it could also stem from a feelings of low self-esteem or confidence in their abilities to perform.

In this situation, there are two effective measures you can take, according to the experts. One, is to have a private conversation about how you’re feeling. “Remind him or her that you are allies not adversaries and that you both need to work in a communal, team-oriented way to achieve the best results possible for the organization you both are working for and representing,” Dr. Thomas advises.

If on the other hand, your coworker is taking credit for your ideas or stealing your thunder in an effort to rise to the top (and impress your manager), it’s essential to stand up for yourself.

Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert suggests looping in someone else to ensure sure your due is given. She says to create an electronic paper trail by copying your boss. Here, you can praise your coworker, yet clearly explain that you are moving ahead with your idea. She gives an example e-mail: “Boss, I am so excited that Mary is on board to help execute my suggestion about [x]. We will make a great team!”

If your employee is competitive

Sometimes employees get into a “I could do this better than the boss” point of view (which is often mistaken). Or they try to take on tasks meant for the boss to try to impress higher-ups. Mertel says this is when the mentoring part of a manager’s job description rises in importance.

“With an employee you manage your job is to motivate and encourage them to be the best they can be so you can meet your goals. A good boss is one who cares about the concerns of the employee and gives feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Tell them you appreciate their passion and being a go-getter, but also tell them when it’s not appropriate and why,” she says.

You might also consider explaining how their competitive attitude can appear more self-inclined than business-first.

“You need to inform him or her immediately each time there is an example of his or her competitiveness so that this kind of behavior and attitude can decrease and does not alienate or cause dissension between other employees at the company. It is important to emphasize how it is good to work to the best of one’s ability to benefit the company as a whole rather than for one’s own benefit and self-interest,” Dr. Thomas says.

If your business partner is competitive

Taking that entrepreneurial leap of faith into small business loans and investor meetings is one that’s often softened with a partner in professional passion. But when your camaraderie toward a shared goal quickly turns into a race to the finish of who will do the most for the company, you might leave your brainstorming or planning sessions feeling frustrated. This is when Mertel suggests setting aside a time to talk less about the company you’re fostering and more about your expectations of one another. Since a business partnership thrives when two people fully trust, respect and value one another’s unique contribution to the company’s growth, being open and candid will not only rescue your friendship, but possibly your bottom line, too.

“If your business partner is a competitive person, it is critical to periodically remind him or her that you two are partners and not the ones to compete against.  Let your business partner know that the best way to grow your business is to grow it together as productively and successfully as possible,” Dr. Thomas says.

If your romantic partner, in the same field, is competitive

Considering the majority of couples meet in college, in the workplace or online, your chances are pretty high of meeting someone in your field. Though a shared passion can be the pheromone that attracts you together, it can also be the scent that drags you apart, especially if one of you experiences success when the other struggles. Dr. Thomas says drawing clear boundaries will help preserve your relationship. These lines should limit comparison and instead, encourage collaboration and support.

“Maximize you two being a unit and engage in activities together as true partners which strengthen and increase your bond with each other as well as the quality of your relationship,” she explains.

Not sure how to start that conversation? Mertel suggests making a request in terms of your discomfort, not in terms of their faults. She says you might start with, “I’d like to tell you about something that goes on for me when I see this behavior…” and followed by a request, “Would you be willing to do this?” If they won’t budge? “Ask them for tips on how you can become more comfortable with it. They may give you insight and actually teach you about something you can adopt. If you can’t accept their behavior you’ll have to assess if it’s a deal breaker for you,” she adds.