Competition is a normal and healthy part of office life—until it isn’t. 

When I first graduated from university and launched my career, I believed that those who worked the hardest and contributed the most value would get ahead. While such environments do exist, unhealthy workplace rivalries can muddy the waters. 

I was working for a call center at a major Canadian bank’s discount brokerage arm and saw opportunities with clear solutions. So, I built an end-to-end how-to guide and training manual from scratch, which is still being used 19 years later. I consistently achieved record-breaking referral numbers, and pitched, designed, and facilitated upskilling sessions that saw the team’s referral numbers more than double. No matter how hard I worked, my supervisor singled me out and tore me down every chance she got, given any excuse or none. When finally leaving for a hard-won full-service brokerage position, a kind colleague pulled me aside and (tongue in cheek) advised me to do as little work as possible in my new role, because otherwise, my colleagues would eat me alive. 

The downsides of bad office behavior 

For decades now, in both articles and books, we’ve heard about the perils of negative female competitiveness in the workplace—with loads of advice for how to handle it. However, this is not a gender-unique issue. In fact, the root causes that compel a harmful and competitive attitude at work are true for men, women, and all gender identifications. 

The stakes, however, seem especially high when we personally experience destructive posturing and actions by our colleagues or bosses. This can take the form of undermining ideas, excluding people from conversations, talking negatively behind a colleague’s back, and placing undue blame. If especially egregious, it can negatively impact our careers, our income, our physical and mental health, and our ability to perform at the top of our game. 

Envy occurs when there is a perception of inequality or when people feel a need to compete for resources. At an individual level, studies have shown that those with higher self-esteem are more likely to use envy as a motivational force, but people with higher neuroticism perceive envy as stressful and will seek to relieve feelings of inferiority by undermining other individuals in the organization. — SHRM Executive Network

By denigrating the thing that makes them feel ‘less than’, the envious person can make the other feel bad, so they can ultimately begin to feel ‘more than’. It’s a shaky way of building self-esteem, but it’s as though the envious person needs to absorb some of the other’s energy to feel whole and functioning. Except, the ‘feel good’ effect never lasts, and they may need to up the ante to continue to feel better about themselves. Envious people can be competitive. More than that, they can seem to take pleasure in another’s misfortune. We see this kind of envious attack carried out daily on social media, where celebrities’ looks and behaviors are criticized, and the tiniest slip is magnified and vilified. 

What causes us to act competitively anyway? 

Research tells us there are both psychological factors and psychosocial factors that can underpin negative competition in the workplace. 

Psychological: We are driven by our insecurities and see others as a threat. Psychologically driven insecurities are varied. They can stem from unmet early childhood needs where the person felt “not good enough.” In a work scenario, there could be a desire to bring down the person they perceive as making them feel that way. They may blame the person for their unhappiness because their self-image relies on external factors, and or their constant striving to not feel inadequate is threatened by a more confident, happy colleague. 

Psychosocial: We perceive scarce opportunities and feel the need to compete for them. For women, it may be that one seat at the table that compels them to compete with and distance themselves from female colleagues to win that prize. 

It took over 2,500 years from the first elections in Greece for women in the U.S. to earn the right to vote. Men have traditionally held the lion’s share of world resources, voting rights, and property rights, and it took forces like the Suffragette movement to make headway. While these movements have created more leadership opportunities for women, they are few and hard-won. Creating that path to the top necessitates shining over others. 

It’s time to be intentional 

With gender equity a goal for so many organizations—coupled with the idea that true allies in the workplace are needed more than ever—what specific actions can we take to show up as professional, generous, even role models when dealing with a competitive work associate? Can we turn the situation around for ourselves ahead of having to engage HR or a higher-level leader? I believe we can. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s perhaps one of the healthiest ways you can advance your own goals and build confidence and integrity in the process. 

6 game-changing steps when faced with personally directed bad behavior

  1. Find a trusted confidante to vent to, and then leave it behind. Cultivate a positive focus on what you can control. 
  2. Foster a wraparound support structure of those key influencers around your colleague. When they know your value, you'll inhibit their ability to tarnish you. 
  3. Build mentor and sponsor relationships. Find those who've been around the block to guide you and help you grow, while also speaking up for you when you aren't in the room. 
  4. Know your worth. As you grow in confidence and focus on delivering unique value, you'll be less impacted by such behaviors. 
  5. Model the change you want to see. Support and mentor other women when you have the opportunity. 
  6. Make intentional career choices. Figure out what you want and strategize how to achieve it. 

None of us want to be on the receiving end of a workplace rivalry directed at us. And none of us want to be that individual creating the rivalry drama. Self-examination is always good. We can all be more intentional champions for one another’s self-worth and dignity. Start with you. There are no downsides—only upsides—to rising above and leading the way.