Deal With Overly Competitive Colleagues

At least a third of work colleagues are viewed as being competitive, with most workers viewing this as a negative thing.[1] And a number of senior executives believe that employees are more competitive today than they were a decade ago.[2] The majority of people want a workplace that is conducive to getting along with others to ensure that work is productive and enjoyable. However, sometimes workers who have an overly competitive attitude to work can make this difficult to achieve and can create rifts in the workplace. If you suspect you're on the receiving end of regular negative treatment dished out by an over-competitive co-worker, read the following suggestions for dealing with them constructively, and for reflecting over your own ideas the role of competitiveness at work.


How competitive is your workplace?

  1. Consider the competitive realities of your work environment. Some workplaces are naturally more competitive than others. For example, if you're in Be a Sales Representative and marketing, you'll be surrounded by people who are competitive by both nature and job description, so expecting this to be the reality is the first part of coping with it. On the other hand, if you're in an environment where competitiveness isn't part of the job description, its presence can seem foreign and unpleasant. In either case, the mindset you adopt when you approach the competitiveness can make all the difference in dealing with it.
  2. Consider the benefits as well as the drawbacks of competitiveness. Competitiveness has both advantages and disadvantages; painting it in a purely negative light does it a disservice. By only concentrating on the downside of competitiveness because of how it's impacting you personally, you risk losing sight of the potential benefits of being on the good side of a competitive person, on your team, and working for things you're equally passionate about. Competitiveness can result in innovation, successful sales and outcomes, and motivation. On the other hand, it's clear that too much competitiveness without restraint can exhaust ideas and people, pushing less competitive people to the edge, and create a dog-eat-dog environment which eventually results in a toxic work environment. Acknowledging whether or not you're in an organization that encourages healthy competition or is fostering extremely negative competitiveness is a vital starting point.
  3. Be aware that most organizations are a combination of cooperation and competitiveness. Problems really only arise in workplaces where extreme internal competition is not adequately dealt with.[3] If your organization is all competition and no collaboration or sense of shared fate, you're probably sitting in a hotbed of negative competitiveness.
    • Avoid confusing arrogance with ambition. The healthy competitive person is driven by an internal critic that goads them to constantly improve; the arrogant person simply assumes they're superior to others.[4] Try praising your competitive co-worker for work well done; if he or she is a high-achieving striver, you may just find yourself embraced by them as someone they feel they can trust.

Assessing your own relationship to competitiveness

  1. Look to yourself first. If you're easily upset by competitive people, you'll find many work situations confronting because there are always going to be competitive people surrounding you, even in relatively non-hierarchical professional environments. It's important to trust your own abilities first and foremost; you're employed because those who hired you believed you're capable and worth having on board – don't forget that as part of the bigger picture.
  2. Don't take the competitiveness personally. It can be only too easy to assume that a person's negative reaction to us is a sign that there is either something wrong with us as a person or that we've somehow done something wrong. However, if a co-worker has suddenly started behaving towards you in hostile and aggressive ways for no apparent reason, this is much more likely to be all about them rather than you. An overly competitive person will often feel strongly threatened by your abilities - rather than by you as a person - and their way of dealing with their feelings is to create drama. Don't allow yourself to be sucked into it by thinking it's personal.
  3. Look at your own level of competitiveness too. Just how competitive are you? It's important to acknowledge your own level of competitiveness and complicity in fostering a competitive approach to work, otherwise nothing will change! Indeed, sometimes it can be your very own competitiveness that fuels your belief that others are being too competitive; it feels a bit like a race and you're egging it on somewhat.
    • If you're feeling insecure for any reason, have the courage to address the source of that insecurity. Perhaps you need more training or personal development in order to be able to reach the next level at work. Investigate the training options available to you so that you feel reassured that you're working in a level playing field.

Coping with the competitiveness

  1. Maintain a polite and civil manner. Try to be friendly – if you feel you can – without losing sight of the fact that an ultra-competitive person can be potentially undermining. Tempting as it can be to react in the heat of the moment when somebody is deliberately trying to make your life difficult, this can often backfire – encouraging the offender to react to you in worse ways than before. On the other hand, chances are if you don't give them the emotional reaction they're seeking, they'll conclude it's a waste of time trying to get a rise out of you and start leaving you alone.
    • It can also happen that when an over-competitive co-worker notices that you don't intend them harm in any way, they'll feel more motivated to treat you nicely in return. Friendly casual conversation, but in subjects in which they do not consider themselves expert and thus would feel no need to be competitive, can help.
  2. Try working with rather than against openly competitive colleagues. At least they're open about their ambition and desire to outdo others. Think of the ways that you can harness that ambitious energy and turn it to your own good and the good of your team. For example, it can often be a useful tactic to ask them for their advice and ideas about things they talk about or do, rather than assuming they're going to run away with all the glory. This flatters them, as well as giving you an opportunity to learn from them. Openly competitive colleague types include:
    • The superstar – this competitive co-worker always needs to shine and will go above and beyond the call of duty to do so, often cherry-picking the most high-profile work available. This person reacts well to being given praise and thrives on being given the go-ahead and can inspire others. However, this competitive spirit needs to understand that he or she remains responsible to everyone else in the team, the boss, and the workplace.[2]
    • The weightlifter – this competitive co-worker shoulders responsibility by taking on extra workloads. This can be helpful provided they don't overdo it and suffer from burnout.[2] This competitive personality can be a source of morale-boosting to the rest of the team provided they meet the deadlines and don't behave territorially.
    • The speeder – this competitive co-worker wants it done yesterday. This can be beneficial in terms of morale and motivation, provided they're precise. Unfortunately, being precise is not something they're always able to provide in the rush to be at the lead. Check the work of such a person with care while harnessing their energy to motivate others.[2]
  3. Be risk averse with the sneaky or saboteur competitive colleague. These people are harder to work with than the openly competitive colleague because they like to undermine through devious means, including by making other people around them look bad. A sneaky competitive colleague tends to see everyone else as potential threats to his or her supremacy in whatever field or skill set they're known for. You can spot a sneaky competitive colleague by the things they conveniently leave out, such as not letting the boss know you helped, "forgetting" to send emails to you that concern you, or standing up in front of the weekly work meeting and proclaiming they were solely responsible for some good outcome in which you played a major part. Such a person is unlikely to change his or her spots, and you'll need to manage around them as well as standing up for yourself. When you're vexed by a sneaky negative co-worker, consider the following:
    • Keep back-up copies of everything you do, especially anything involving this person or their responsibilities. In the event the co-worker tries to place blame on you, or show you up in a negative light for anything, you'll be covered. In addition, don't be afraid to stand up and be counted when you've got the paper trail of your involvement in work well done; this isn't the time to play shrinking violet because the saboteur competitor doesn't play fair.
    • Keep your boss apprised of the work you've done, regardless of what is said openly elsewhere in the workplace. Make sure your performance is verifiable and unimpeachable.
    • Cull their snooping. If you suspect a co-worker is physically prying into your business, put a stop to it. Use secure PC passwords to protect any electronic files you use at work and keep your desk and filing cabinet contents locked with a key. Avoid sharing personal information about yourself with such a co-worker. Keep all conversations professional and distant.
    • Talk to the sneaky competitor colleague directly and call him or her on their tactics. This lets them know you're no pushover. If you find this approach too confronting, find other colleagues willing to approach the person with you, or talk to your boss about the impact this person's behavior is having on your work performance and satisfaction.
  4. If necessary, minimize contact. This doesn't have to mean avoiding your competitive co-workers altogether. But if hostile, negative, or undermining behavior is ongoing, and you still have to deal with these people on a regular basis, stick to communicating with them only when you have to without going out of your way to interact with them. And, if this colleague happens to be somebody who you don't directly work alongside – but you just happen to see around the building every now and then – avoiding them totally is probably a good idea.
  5. Look up rather than sideways. If you're in an unhealthy competitive workplace, it's possible your boss is encouraging the behavior of colleagues playing off one another rather than promoting a level playing field. While a boss who encourages healthy competitiveness within an environment where everyone has equal chances of proving themselves can be a positive motivational strategy, the boss's expectations become problematic where he or she is "playing favorites" and is actively creating a divisive, mistrusting workplace culture that damages team spirit. If you think this might be happening, there are several things you can do:
    • Talk to your colleagues about their feelings concerning team morale and management support, in order to gauge their general feelings and understandings. Be careful not to name call or theorize without actual facts – this is a fact-seeking exercise at this stage. Later, if you feel there is enough concern, you could consider raising the particular issue of competitiveness for a general discussion but this depends on how comfortable you feel.
    • Talk directly to your boss to find out what his or her strategy is with respect to teamwork and shared outcomes in the workplace. Consider pointing out to your boss that a team encouraged to do well as a whole benefits the organization, especially where those who are not performing as well are given help and advice from those who are performing well.
    • Talk to higher level management or human resources if you're concerned that your workplace environment is too divisive.
    • Consider finding a new position under a different boss, or even a new job. If you can't find ways to work around the boss's approach to dividing and conquering, and things don't change, it might be time to leave. It's natural for co-workers to pick up the attitudes of their superiors and in time many will view the overly competitive state of affairs as acceptable.

Encouraging more cooperation

  1. Be an advocate for more cooperation in the workplace. Sometimes the best policy is to be the change you want to see in your workplace. Yes, this is a hard ask, but is it any harder than fuming silently about the competitive colleagues hanging around the watercooler sneering at what they perceive as their less competitive co-workers? Some ways to encourage more cooperation in the workplace include:[5]
    • Use inclusive language. Say "We" rather than "I" when discussing projects, teamwork, and work outcomes. Everyone has a stake in both performing the work, and in being given the accolades for work well done.
    • Demonstrate that you view everyone as an equal, not as a superior or inferior. Avoid responding to competitive outbreaks at work with arrogance or jealousy; instead, seek to show people that you value them for the skills they bring to the workplace, not their job level or über-willingness to outshine everyone else.
    • Focus on maintaining the Golden Rule in all of your interactions with others. Don't stoop to their level – responding competitively or with snarky comments will foster more negative competitiveness rather than improving the situation.
    • Remind yourself that overly competitive people are usually coming to the situation with some sort of fear motivating their behavior, such as being left behind or losing their job; perceiving this can help add a compassionate perspective.
    • Don't buy into the competitive dogma. Accept that you're exceptional and wonderful just as you are. You don't need external validation to prove this, nor do you need "more, more, more" of things to show you're better than anyone else. Ask your co-workers exactly what it is they're wanting more of, and how they feel this is improving their personal lives. Be tactful though!
  2. Be flexible. The suggestions outlined here offer guidance points. Any situation where relationships are involved is contextual and you'll need to adapt what works and discard what doesn't work according to your personal experiences and style of workplace. What might work for one competitive co-worker may not work so well another, meaning that you'll need to be ready to adjust your approach. This can consist of such things as:
    • Reassessing how to engage with a super competitive person. Can you find particular elements of what they're doing that you do agree with and have a discussion with them focused just on those agreed points? If they believe you're clued into their aspirations, you'll gain respect and a potential ally.
    • Try being curious. Ask questions about how they've reached the solution or idea that they're putting forward.[4] Be a good listener; you may learn a great deal and improve your own abilities.
    • Don't push the barrel uphill. Sometimes letting the competitive colleagues just do their thing while you do yours can be a very satisfactory state of affairs for everyone, provided it has positive benefits for the workplace as a whole.


  • Incorporate assertive behavior techniques into your communications.
  • Try to empathize with the person. He or she wouldn't be doing this in the first place if in some way they weren't feeling deeply insecure or threatened. Try to appreciate how this feels to them.
  • If the situation still gets worse after attempting all the above steps, it may be worth either directly confronting the co-worker about their behavior or reporting it.


  • Avoid presenting complaints to a competitive worker; they'll mark you down immediately as a weaker person. The clever way around this is to always ask for advice directed at the matter concerning you.
  • Workplace harassment and bullying is unacceptable; if you are experiencing either of these problems, report it and seek support.

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Sources and Citations

  1. Personnel Today, One-third of employees work with competitive colleagues,
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Robert Half International, 5 Most Competitive Co-Workers,
  3. Robert Sutton, The No A*hole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, p. 91, (2007), ISBN 978-1-84744-000-6
  4. 4.0 4.1 Claudia H Deutsch, Dealing with those alpha types (and winning),
  5. Robert Sutton, The No A*hole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, pp. 94-96, (2007), ISBN 978-1-84744-000-6