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How to Deal With an Extremely Competitive Colleague

If your co-worker does not let you in on relevant information that she "meant to" share with you, takes credit for your work, does not give you the complete picture of projects, keeps all her cards close to her chest, spends a lot of time in the manager’s office, and bags projects you didn't even know about, you may be dealing with a highly competitive colleague.

If your co-worker does not let you in on relevant information that she “meant to” share with you, takes credit for your work, does not give you the complete picture of projects, keeps all her cards close to her chest, spends a lot of time in the manager’s office, and bags projects you didn’t even know about, you may be dealing with a highly competitive colleague.

bird fight

(Photo Credit: rycheme/Flickr)

Here are a few ways you can handle the situation.

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Observe: Try to see if there is a trend to the behavior. Are there specific projects, specific managers’ assignments that this colleague jumps on to? Could it be because these are her areas of expertise or because she is trying to learn more about the projects she is working on? If you do find a trend, you can predict your colleague’s reaction better. It may be beneficial to in fact seek help from her and acknowledge her expertise. Oftentimes, people become overly competitive because of their insecurities or low self-esteem. Reassuring them of their competence may help them let their guard down a bit.

Give Credit: In order to collaborate and work as a team, especially if this obnoxious colleague plays an important role in the team, acknowledge and credit her contributions first. Try and gain trust by letting her know that you intend to work together as a team, not as a competitor.

Stay Focused: Of course, building trust is not always easy and your colleague may just be obnoxious. If this is the case, it is even more important for you to stay focused. It is very easy to get distracted and indulge in a power game trying to outsmart your colleague, preempting her strikes, and making counter-strikes. Don’t get sucked into an unhealthy working spirit. Stay focused and do your job as you are required to. If you must seek help from your colleague, make sure you have documented all your discussions, so that in case she tries to take credit, you have a mail trail to show. Wherever possible, secure your data and protect critical information.

Have an Open Discussion: Believe it or not, people may act competitively, without intending to do so because that’s how they were in their school years (either in academics or sports). It’s their nature and they are just not aware that it’s hurting the team. Have an honest discussion and share specific examples where you have observed their behavior to be detrimental to you and the team. Let them know that you look forward to working collaboratively and in an environment that will help both of you give your best without the fear of being sabotaged. She may be able to understand your point of view and see what you are experiencing. If nothing changes, you may have to go up to a higher-up.

Let the Manager Know and Evaluate Options: Honestly, it doesn’t always help reaching out to the manager — especially if your competitive colleague has a great rapport with your manager, is exceptional in her job, and your manager trusts her. Your manager may already be aware of her behavior and just chooses to ignore it because the work is getting done. If you suspect this to be the case, step back and see if this is generally how everyone in the team is behaving.

Is extreme competition accepted and entrenched in the team’s day-to-day activities? If this is not an organization-wide practice, maybe you could look at moving teams or speaking to your local HR representative to know your options. If this is an organizational behavior, then it’s possible you are the misfit. Evaluate what you see, and decide what makes the best sense to you as a professional. On the other hand, if you think your colleague is sneaky and your manager is unaware of her activities, you may have to bring it up. But this tactic will only be effective if you have established your credibility with the manager. So work on delivering your best first.

Know Your Rights: If your colleague uses unfair employment practices, threatens you or creates an unsafe work environment in her quest to remain the “top player,” report it immediately to your local HR or ombudsperson, so appropriate action is taken.

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Padmaja Ganeshan Singh
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