The Upside of Rivalry


If you think the term “rival” is just another word for “enemy,” it’s time to reconsider.  Rivalry, when viewed as a motivator, can spur you to work harder to improve your skills and performance both in and outside of work.

By Yvonne Milosevic

The idea that competition boosts motivation is not new. Way back in 1898, psychologist Norman Triplett noticed that a cyclist would ride faster when there’s another cyclist around. And research published in Harvard Business Review found that merely sitting next to someone who is highly productive can increase your output and work quality by up to 10 percent.

So, how can you tap into the benefits of having a rival and avoid toxic side effects? It may require an attitude adjustment.

The right kind of rivalry

Best-selling author Simon Sinek’s book “The Infinite Game” explores the value of having what he calls a Worthy Rival. “Traditional competition forces us to take on an attitude of winning; a Worthy Rival inspires us to take on an attitude of improvement,” Sinek wrote in this preview. “The former focuses our attention on the outcome; the latter focuses our attention on process … An excessive focus on beating our competition not only gets exhausting over time; it can actually stifle innovation.”

Your potential rival might be your equal. Think famous sports rivalries like the Yankees vs. Red Sox. Tech rivals like Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates. Rideshare warriors Uber vs. Lyft. Or, it can be someone who excels in areas you don’t. The first awakens your competitive spirit and makes you want to perform your best. The latter can inspire you to dig deep, improve your weaknesses, and innovate.

“Regardless of who they are or where we find them, the main point is that they do something (or many things) as well as or better than us,” Sinek explained. “They may make a superior product, command greater loyalty, lead more effectively, or act with a clearer sense of purpose than we do. We don’t need to admire everything about them, agree with them, or like them. We simply acknowledge that they have strengths and abilities from which we could learn a thing or two.”


Steer clear of toxic rivalry

Workplace rivalry can turn ugly fast if we’re not careful. Excessive competition can drive people to suppress hurt feelings, gossip maliciously about their rival, or quit their jobs to avoid the situation altogether.  An international poll conducted by Monster revealed that one in five (20%) respondents had left a job due to a rivalry in the workplace. Another 26% have considered leaving a job because of a problematic workplace rival.

“Competition doesn’t have to be detrimental to a workplace; in fact, it can often be quite beneficial,” Mary Ellen Slayter, Career Advice Expert for Monster, explained. “Your company works hard to hire the best talent available, and rivalries are bound to occur when similarly skilled and motivated individuals work together. Balance is key. Let workplace competition motivate you to perform your best, but don’t get distracted by jealousy.”

After all, said Slayter, living (and working) well is the best revenge.