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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Prichard

Competition - Healthy vs unhealthy

Updated: Mar 2

Competition between co-workers: healthy or unhealthy?
Competition - Healthy vs Unhealthy

Merriam-Webster defines competition as:

1. “The effort of two or more parties acting independently to secure the business of a third party by offering the most favorable terms.”

2. “A contest between rivals.”

I began thinking about the definition of competition the other day when I was on the tennis court and someone made a comment about how we were all very competitive. For some reason, the comment lingered in my mind for multiple days after that match. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then, the universe (or the Internet gods) popped up an article about competition in business between co-workers. It’s always unsettling when you feel like the Internet has read your mind.

I read the article, which was a thorough discussion of competition in the workplace and the differences as to how men and women react to work competition, and then read several more articles on the subject as I was intrigued. The gist of the articles was that moderate competition in the workplace with managers keeping control can be healthy, but if it is not managed well, it can turn unhealthy and toxic. Naturally, I considered my own reactions to competition, and I ultimately concluded that I don’t like competition between myself and co-workers; I think it creates bad blood and, according to Merriam-Webster, competition is between rivals.

Now, don’t misunderstand, I’m a highly competitive person and have been all my life, mostly in sports. I was a competitive gymnast, played basketball and softball, tennis, twirled, ran track, and competed in academic arenas for many years without any thought about competing. I was also in band battling for first-chair for several years. I am not shy about being a staunch competitor. I acknowledge that as a fact. And I’ve always tried to outdo my competition and best them. I want to win. I still do. However, in my mind, competition in sports feels healthy because there are rules. When I enter a sporting event, whether tennis or otherwise, there are defined rules, opponents, and possible outcomes. You can tell when someone is cheating on the tennis court, like calling a ball out when it is clearly in. Those calls can be confronted, or evened up by playing harder, or hitting a great shot that can’t be called out. Mainly, it doesn’t feel personal. That’s not the case when competition is inserted into the workplace. In the work arena, there are no rules of engagement that are easily controlled and detectable, and it all feels personal to me.

For the past decade-plus, I’ve been in a sales role where I was required to meet quotas and goals, but the majority of the time, my biggest competitor was myself. Trying to outdo my own sales from the prior year and beat my own record. I enjoyed this competition; it drove me to outdo myself and bring in more revenue than I had the year prior. It brought great satisfaction, and it felt good to work hard and surpass milestones and, of course, reap a financial reward. Though after reading the article about competition in the workplace, I pondered how I would feel if I was directly pitted against my co-workers.


In business, unless it is specifically defined by a well-organized manager, there are no clear rules of engagement. It’s hard to sidestep the backstabbers, the underminers, and the cheaters because it is all done covertly. It’s not in front of your face, it’s behind your back, and many times you don’t realize it’s going on until it’s too late. Nothing is more unsettling than learning that a co-worker you thought was your friend was really trying to take your leads out from under you or is planting seeds of doubt in the minds of superiors. With no clear rules of engagement, I don’t believe competition between co-workers creates any goodwill, especially if co-workers are being encouraged to compete against each other and do whatever they must to get the “sale.” The true enemy should be the company's competitors, not team members. For me, a sales team is supposed to be just that, a team, all working for a common goal. I want to be able to lean on my co-workers and trust them. And managers that don't correct or discourage behavior that undermines other workers only contribute to a toxic and non-productive environment.

My parents gave me some incredible advice many years ago when I had children. They told me, don’t ever compare your children to each other. In other words, saying things like, “Why don't you make good grades like your sister does?” It creates resentment and drives wedges between siblings. Hostilities explode and soon, you’ve created a family where siblings don’t like each other very much and fight. I grew up in a family of five children and I never once felt inadequate because of something my sibling accomplished because my parents never held us to the same measure. We were all unique and had our individual talents, motivations, and way of doing things. I worked hard to raise my children in that same environment where I never compared them nor injected some degree of failure if they didn’t “measure up” to their sibling. I believe I accomplished this, as my children are all successful in their own way and all support each other’s successes and lend a shoulder when someone stumbles. That’s the type of team I want to be on.  

Bottom-line, healthy competition is productive. But unhealthy competition can cause stress and pressure, which doesn’t necessarily produce the desired result. It’s important for managers to know the difference between the two environments and ensure the atmosphere they are creating fosters healthy competition and does not create a toxic environment where nobody wins. I will happily step onto a tennis court or into a boardroom and fight to the bitter end to win a match where the rules are clear but leave me out of a work environment that pits workers against each other. And, if competition between co-workers is the atmosphere you desire to create, just make sure there are clear rules of engagement, or you may have the ingredients for drama, toxicity, mistrust, and total implosion of your team.

If you are a manager, how do you handle competition in the workplace? Leave me a comment.

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