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Weak economy breeds more co-worker rivalry

If your office sometimes feels more like an Olympic boxing ring than the collaborative environment you hear about in human resources materials, you can at least take comfort that you’re not alone.A newly released survey finds that nearly half of senior managers at U.S. companies think employees are more competitive with each other than they were a decade earlier.The telephone survey, of 1,013 s

If your office sometimes feels more like an Olympic boxing ring than the collaborative environment you hear about in human resources materials, you can at least take comfort that you’re not alone.

A newly released survey finds that nearly half of senior managers at U.S. companies think employees are more competitive with each other than they were a decade earlier.

The telephone survey, of 1,013 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees, found that only 4 percent of the managers think employees are less competitive with one another than a decade ago.

It was conducted in August 2011 and released last week by Office Team, a temporary administrative staffing agency.

Blame the years of living with the uncertainty of a tight job market and a high unemployment rate. Experts say there are many more workers than jobs, which means workers have started to feel threatened by their peers.

“There’s only so much room in the lifeboat,” said Jane Cranston, a New York career coach.

That, in turn, means people will try harder to stand out individually, in some cases even if it comes at the expense of succeeding as a group.

“A lot of the competition at work is (because) you want to look good for the boss so that if someone gets fired, it’s the other guy and not you,” said Ron Humphrey, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s business school.

Those fears aren’t wholly unfounded. Although companies aren’t cutting workers like they were a few years ago, employment growth has remained painfully slow. The unemployment rate stood at 8.2 percent in June.

Of course, there are plenty of benefits to being competitive. Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame, noted that research has shown that the best athletes are also the most competitive.

But particularly in U.S. office environments that focus on teamwork and collaboration, you can get into trouble if your competitive streak makes you the jerk at work.

“There’s some optimal range. If you seem arrogant and imperious, you may get a certain level of respect, but I think you’ll be seen as difficult,” Judge said.

But on the other hand, he noted, “If you continually undersell yourself, you’re not going to get recognized.”

Judge also noted that there’s another possible explanation for the fact that more people appear to be out to one-up their co-workers: Narcissism. He said research also has shown that narcissism is on the increase, and “narcissists like to show off.”

Experts say there are ways to stand out from your peers without coming across as a jerk, or a narcissist. Here are some tips.

Work smarter, not necessarily harder: Cranston, the career coach, notes that many women fall into the trap of working hard but never getting noticed. She recommends that employees try to make sure they are devoting at least some time to the right work, including the projects people at the top care about, and not sweating all the small stuff.

Humphrey notes that it’s the person who seeks out the tough, complex assignment that is more likely to get noticed.

“Some people work really hard at some of the more simple, mundane tasks. They think the way to get ahead is to be a busy worker bee, but that just proves you’re a busy worker bee," he said. "The way you get promoted is by showing you can take on the leadership tasks."

Take credit for good work: Cranston also notes that many women shy away from giving themselves a pat on the back, instead letting the group take credit for their efforts.

“Women say ‘we’ when it’s ‘I,’” she said.

Another problem is the boss who takes credit for everyone else’s work. To mitigate that problem, she recommends developing a signature style so leaders will recognize you did the work even if your boss is the one presenting it.

Network: If you want to get promoted, or just avoid a pink slip, Cranston recommends that you make sure the people in the top positions get to know you -- even if that means riding the elevator a few extra times or making extra trips to the bathroom.

“I think it’s harder to fire a face,” she said. “It’s easier to lay off a name on a chart.”

Build loyalty: Humphrey’s research has shown that people who are pushy or aggressive about forcing themselves into a leadership position don’t necessarily do well.

On the other hand, people who are high on empathy are more likely to emerge as the leader because they understand better what motivates people.

“Instead of trying to dominate, they build support,” he said.

Are you feeling the co-worker rivalry? Join us for a chat about the rise in workplace competition in a tough job market at 10:30 am ET Wednesday. Sign up here