Having a competitive spirit can be a good driving force in the office, pushing employees to stretch their limits, increasing job security and securing rewards.
But having too much competition, or unnecessary competition, between co-workers can be damaging to company relations and work outcomes.
When people begin to treat work as a zero-sum game, co-workers are seen as a threat and an obstacle to their advancement.
So how can we explain this hyper-competitiveness amongst employees?
A recent study in the European Journal of Social Psychology by New York University revealed that competitiveness occurs when we become so committed to achieving a certain goal, that we presume others to have exactly the same objective.
NYU psychology professors and co-authors of the study, Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer, say that competitiveness is grounded on the psychological phenomenon, “goal projection,” and our egocentric way of perceiving other people’s goals to be exactly like our own, making them a threat.
The study uses common real-life examples to explain this behaviour.
In the study, fellow co-author and NYU doctoral candidate Janet Ahn and her colleagues randomly approached movie-goers in line and asked what movie they were seeing before asking: “How badly do you want to watch this movie?”
She then pointed to the first person waiting in line and asked test subjects to guess what movie they thought the individual was going to see.
The results showed that among those who had a strong goal commitment to watch a particular movie, there was a higher probability that they also believed the target person would be watching the same movie.
“If we’re fixated on seeing that blockbuster film or purchasing those fresh strawberries, we’re more likely to see others wanting to do the same,” explains Ahn.
“These assumptions may unnecessarily spur a competitive spirit and, with it, more aggressive behaviour.”
The findings are telling — when the target person is viewed to be similar to us, we are more than likely to believe they after the same things.
This is especially visible in the workplace where employees are vying for the same titles, bonuses and career progressions that others seemingly want.
But what tend to forget is that hyper-competitiveness also comes down to our psychological behaviour and can in fact, draw attention away from our job.
At the end of the day, the golden rule is don’t dedicate all your energy on competing with everyone – except for yourself.
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