Competition in the workplace is common; in fact competition everywhere is a normality. But, there is a line where competition threatens productivity and is no longer a helpful resource, this is when workplace competition gets out of hand. It is well known that competition is a behavior connected to envy. Envy or the emotional experience of longing what someone else is or has, is one of the most difficult natural human emotions. When we feel envy we feel threatened, which is exactly why it’s easier to activate defenses to cope against envy than to feel envy itself. Some people’s envy causes them to shut down, and causes depressive states, but for others it makes them competitive. Competition, which is a manic defense, causes people to continue to climb the ladder to the top. Focusing on what else they need to obtain, and minimizing their achievements.
In the US culture we pride ourselves on being able to move up, this experience feeds the tendency to mask envy by continuing to move into the newest, better direction. Frankly it’s exhausting and stressful. And it’s so normalized that many times people aren’t aware of what they are doing. But doing this behavior is very hurtful, as it is usually combined with an unconscious feeling of “I am less than that person”. Bringing ourselves down in connection to others is not productive and is a catalyst for anxiety and depression.
If competition is active in the workplace it means that so is envy and so is what I call “the one up and one down experience”. One person is elevated to an idealized height, and one person is lowered to be inferior. Both positions are not real, since what is, is that people are good at some things and bad at others. Yet for most, this grey zone is very hard to manage.
So imagine a place where at any moment you can feel like you are flying high or could feel like you are the worst. It feels very out of control and increases emotional reactivity. Worst of all its unspoken, so people usually feel crazy which causes them to want to quit or causes them to act in ways they would rather not. They engage in game playing of sorts to try to hold on to the “up” position because the “down” feels so hard. But this quest is impossible, and makes mistakes and normal miscommunication feel impossible.
In order to combat workplace completion, one must first recognize that it is there. Secondly, it’s helpful to look at the workplace in a family systems model. Who represents the father? Who represents the mother? Who is doing what to get approval? How does “mother” or “father” react to this? Do they enjoy this role, and thus encourage the competition? Which person do I feel more competitive with and why? Do they remind me of someone in my own family such as a sibling or cousin? What is my “down” place, where do I get this perception of myself and how would I like to feel instead? While these questions can feel odd to someone who doesn’t usually think in this way, learning to do so can be very helpful in gaining perspective and a sense of control.