“Friendly competition” has to be one of the most egregious oxymorons in the English language. If you’ve had the unique (dis)pleasure of going head-to-head with me in a fantasy football matchup or an innocuous round of beer pong, you’d discover there’s nothing ~nice~ about competition. At least with me. (I am a scorpio, after all.)
If low-stakes competition like the above is enough to get your blood boiling, imagine the realities of entering the cutthroat professional or business sector with all of your besties. Buckle up for one potentially jealous ride.
Take this brutal confession from a New York advertising creative for instance: “Amy” secretly interviewed for a job at her roommate’s dream company and got the offer over her. “I handled it so poorly. I didn’t tell her I was interviewing because I didn’t think I’d end up there, and I wanted to avoid hurting her feelings.” What motivated this competitive move in the first place? “Turns out I wanted that top agency on my resume just like everyone else,” she said.
Stories like this aren’t one-of-a-kind. I’ve heard countless tales of friends vying for the same promotion, chasing the same customers on social media, fighting for the same networking opportunities, or keeping mum on a solid job opportunity both friends are equally qualified for.
“Are we so worried there aren’t enough seats at the table that we have to sabotage opportunities for our closest peers and companions?”
While we can’t knock ambition, there’s got to be a better way to handle scenarios like the above so we’re not undercutting other women. Even if you believe you’d never knowingly compete with your peers, it’s only healthy to ask ourselves: Are we so worried there aren’t enough seats at the table that we have to sabotage opportunities for our closest peers and companions?
Harvard-trained psychotherapist Katherine Crowley and management consultant and executive coach Kathi Elster who co-authored Mean Girls At Work posit that women aren’t socialized or taught how to compete in a friendly and straightforward manner.
“That saboteur, behind-the-back behavior or passive-aggressive behavior happens because women end up being covertly competitive with one another rather than overtly competitive,” Crowley said. “We’re more comfortable with horizontal power structures, not vertical,” she added. “We do it innately—we’re not even aware of it. We feel as if we must befriend and yet, the workplace is competitive, so it’s a confusing mix.”
“It starts with believing that there’s more than enough success to go around.”
Besides not knowing how to compete, jealousy can play a role as well. Crowley said, “There’s a saying that if you compare, you’ll despair; but also I think if you are coming from a jealous or envious place, it’s almost as if you’re feeling victimized rather than empowered.”
So how do we extinguish this jealous behavior once and for all?
“It starts with believing that there’s more than enough success to go around,” Crowley said. “It’s also important to take a pause and say, ‘OK, what could I be doing to improve the situation?’” They also note that as more women rise to higher positions of power, scarcity is becoming a thing of the past. So it’s time to abandon the notion that there’s not enough pie for everyone.
Ahead, Crowley and Elster walk through what to do when you find yourself competing with friends and share practical ways to tame your competitive streak—and support others—without losing sight of your own professional goals.
What to do when you find yourself competing with friends.
If you’re one-upping each other’s career or biz accomplishments
“That’s just not being supportive,” Elster said. “Nobody likes the one who’s doing that. Nobody looks at the one-upper and thinks, wow, good for them. They look at them and go, really? As soon as you catch yourself—and everybody’s guilty of this—if you catch yourself feeling you have to one-up somebody, then you need to go learn how to be happy for someone else.”
“Learning to be happy for others is a standalone,” Elster said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not unhappy and or that people are not happy for you. It just means that this person at this moment has some glory that you’re going to share. Remember that your moment’s going to come. You don’t want to take their’s away. It’s being supportive.”
If you’re going for the same role
“This is real life and this can happen,” Elster said. “I think you want to say to the woman who you’re up against, who could get that job, ‘I don’t want this to have an impact on our relationship if one of us gets it. Can we agree now that we’re here to support each other and if one of us does not get it, that means one of us has moved forward in a great way and we’re gonna continue to support each other?’”
“It’s basically saying one of us is going to win this, so let’s respect the process and support one another,” Crowley said. Remember that you’re not the decision maker, so you shouldn’t get mad with one another.
Similar to Amy’s story above, if you’ve already gone ahead with the opportunity and not shared ahead of time, Elster said, “What you have to understand is that you are on a trust-building mission now. Say to the other person, ‘I should have mentioned it. I was afraid to, so I didn’t, but I know that I have to rebuild your trust now.’ We have to learn how to share and be supportive.”
If you’re chasing the same customers or developing similar businesses
Jenna Liberman, who founded a marketing agency in Chicago, learned firsthand that being an entrepreneur doesn’t make you immune to struggles that come from competing with friends. While she’s always sought to be open about pricing, resources, relationships, and proprietary information, other local business owners haven’t been as like-minded.
“With one friend in particular, transparency led to the end of our personal and professional relationship,” Liberman said. “When I reached out for advice, she felt I was encroaching into her territory and found my questions about pricing in poor taste. I guess I just don’t buy into the notion that ‘competition’ equals ‘threat.’”
Crowley said one thing that you can do is say, “I so respect what you’ve been able to build here and would like to learn from you as well as support you and have you support me.”
“I think the transparency is what’s called for. Somebody has to be the bigger person to say, so we don’t step on anyone’s toes, why don’t we talk through our territories or where we’re going so that we can support one another rather than hurt one another,” Elster said.
If you’re experiencing favoritism from the boss
If you find yourself on the upside of this tricky situation, Crowley recommends taking your colleague aside, and in a non-volatile way mention that you’re aware that the boss seems to treat you in a way that may seem preferential and you’re not eliciting it. She says you could even say, “Is there some way that I can help you improve your standing?”
Elster added, “You could go to the boss and say, ‘It’s apparent that you appreciate me more than so-and-so and that may be true, it may not, but that’s what this person is thinking and it’s not working well for me.’”
“In this scenario, you could also go to the person who is overlooked, who either doesn’t get enough attention or doesn’t get the promotion and point out that they have some responsibility,” Crowley said. “Sometimes that may be an indication for that person that they need to up their game professionally in some way or they may need to move on and find another situation where they have a greater chance of standing out.”
“It’s the workplace. It’s not as personal as you might think,” Elster said. “Check yourself. Are you taking the behavior of others too personally? Or was it just another day at work?”
Names have been changed to avoid putting people on blast.
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