Consider the competitive relationships you've had in your life. Start with the sibling rivalry, when you might have had a competitive urge to get better grades than your sister. Then there are the athletic rivalries, whether you were trying to be the king of neighborhood hoops or grab that starting linebacker position on your high school football team. Next, rivalries with neighbors, those competitions over whose lawn looks better or who has the nicer car parked in their driveway. But what about work? Do your competitive juices flow at the office? And if so, has it helped you advance your career?
While you may not think that you're in direct competition with your co-workers, it's likely that your supervisor feels differently. "Anytime there's more than one person in a certain position, there will be a pecking order over who's next in line for the promotion or the bonus," says Carlos Angeles, a career adviser in Miami, Florida. "Some managers like to promote this idea of an equal sharing of the load, and while that may be true to an extent, at some point, the load shifts and certain workers take more on and certain workers get less. That's just the way it is."
Travis Allen agrees. "There's always been a Darwinian aspect to office politics, says the New York-based career coach. "It's not quite 'kill or be killed,' but there is a power element to it. You either take control of your own destiny, taking your share of the money, or you get left behind."
It's possible for co-workers who are all reaching for the same company-related goal to be friends. Joan Baum, a sales manager in San Francisco, says two of her best friends are former associates she directly competed with for commissions at her first job. "I can't say that I was always happy to be in competition with people that I really cared about but that's the reality of anything in life, especially sales when you're all lining up new clients," Baum says. "We were three reps out of school in a sales staff of 16 that was spread around the country but we were based in Minneapolis and each one of us had an eye on moving to San Francisco or New York."
Blank says when an opportunity to work in the San Francisco office emerged, all three put in for the job. Baum "won," as she puts it. "I know there were some hard feelings and I'm sure that there was plenty said behind my back once I moved, but we got over it," she says. "I think I probably took the competitive aspect of our relationship a bit too far, making sure that I was always out front when it came to getting new clients, so things probably eased up a bit once a left. Things were kind of cold for a while, but we're all very good friends today."
Baum says she's aware that her leaving the Minneapolis office hurt her friends, both personally and professionally. "We talked about it later and they admitted I pushed them and I told them they pushed me," she says. "In sales, complacency can be the worst thing. You have to find different things to motivate you and having a good friendship with your peers at work can be beneficial if you use that relationship to make yourself do more."
At what cost?
Sandra Elm, a graphic designer in Boise, Idaho, says she's not too sure about Baum's statement. "I really felt a kinship with my co-workers at my last job that I didn't feel with my own family if I'm being honest," she says. "I worked for a start-up in Los Angeles and it was tough. Lots of work and lots of potential. We'd been through so much together that I couldn't imagine being competitive with people I really cared for. It seemed counterproductive."
That's why Elm packed up and left for Idaho after learning one of her closest friends at work badmouthed her projects to her boss. "It helped her get a promotion, basically," Elm says. "She used a couple of difficult projects to make me look incompetent -- not cool. I thought there was still something to be said about teamwork, that not everything had to be cutthroat, but I was wrong."
But Baum says there's a difference between cutthroat and reality. "I had a manager who once explained to me that he had $12,000 to give in bonus money to six employees and that the previous manager would just split things up six ways -- $2,000 each -- but he wanted to reward me because I had done more," Baum says. "I wasn't going to argue with that. I had done more. He gave me $6,000 and my co-workers split the other $6,000 and I was fine with that because we all received what we deserved. Just because we worked toward the same goal didn't mean we got there at the same time. I sacrificed a lot to get ahead at my job so I wasn't going to apologize for it."
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