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  • Writer's pictureNoor Alam

Smart Competition, Not Cutthroat Chaos: Building a Healthy Competitive Spirit at Work

Competition is inevitable within the workplace, between friends, or with oneself. Competitiveness is a spectrum within human beings that varies from person to person, with some people obsessed with winning and others not so much. This article explores the phenomenon of cutthroat competition in the workplace, its implications, and the role of trust in fostering a healthy competitive environment. Drawing on the insights of experts, this paper delves into the neuroscience behind stimulating trust to create a more productive work environment.

Cutthroat competition at work

Defining Cutthroat Competition

Cutthroat competition in the workplace has become a common phenomenon in today's fast-paced corporate landscape. It refers to an intense and often aggressive rivalry among employees or teams striving to outperform one another. This culture of toxic behavior occurs across many fields of work, from Big Tech to entertainment to health. According to Johnny C Taylor Jr, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management in Washington D.C.:

“It is ultimately people-led: if management believes in winning by all means, then it becomes corporate culture.”

In such environments, individuals may resort to tactics prioritizing personal success over team collaboration, leading to a toxic work atmosphere. These tactics include taking credit for others' work, spreading rumors, or sabotaging colleagues to gain an advantage. While a certain level of competitiveness can drive innovation and motivate employees to excel, an excessively competitive environment can breed negativity, undermine teamwork, and hinder overall productivity.

For example, an investment banking firm in Hong Kong created a culture in which employees fought for their futures yearly. Colleagues fought for highest-paying clients; rivalries were the norm, and the bottom 10% would automatically be fired. It bred an incredibly unhealthy work environment in which people were constantly under pressured to be the best or underperform and lose their jobs. What exactly are the lasting effects of such an environment?

The Effects of Unhealthy Competition

Unhealthy competition in the workplace can harm both individuals and the organization. When employees prioritize personal success over team goals, it creates a divisive atmosphere that erodes trust, stifles innovation, and diminishes overall morale.

Stress and Anxiety

The pressure to outperform peers or meet unrealistic targets can affect employees' mental and physical well-being, leading to burnout and decreased job satisfaction. 49% of students reported feeling stressed daily and being forced to compete with their peers and themselves. Additionally, a competitive environment may foster a culture of secrecy and distrust as individuals guard information and resources to maintain a competitive edge.

Impaired Relationships

When colleagues view each other as competitors rather than collaborators, it can lead to communication breakdowns, siloed work, and a lack of synergy. As a result, the organization may miss out on opportunities for innovation and problem-solving that arise from cross-functional collaboration.

Decreased Job Satisfaction

Moreover, unhealthy competition can hurt employee retention and workplace culture. High levels of internal competition can drive talented employees to seek opportunities elsewhere, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge and expertise. Additionally, a competitive environment may deter potential candidates from joining the organization, as they may perceive it as overly stressful or hostile.

Unethical Behavior

In terms of performance, cutthroat competition can lead to short-term gains at the expense of long-term success. When employees are solely focused on outperforming their peers, they may engage in unethical behavior or take unnecessary risks to achieve their goals. For example, at Wells Fargo bank, employees secretly created unauthorized bank and credit card accounts to enhance their performance levels and show a higher sales volume. This can damage the organization's reputation, undermine trust with clients or stakeholders, and ultimately impact its bottom line.

Excitement vs Anxiety in the Workplace

Healthy competition is a powerful motivator in the workplace, leading employees to perform at their best. How do we shape the organization to promote innovation, growth, and productivity?

How employees feel plays a huge role in how they behave in the workplace. If competition elicits fear and anxiety, it is usually due to an external force, such as management threatening to fire their employees, cut their pay, or be embarrassed in front of their peers.

However, when employees are motivated by a bonus, recognition, or promotion for their hard work, they will likely feel excited, engaged, and dedicated. According to a study in the Harvard Business Review, anxious employees are less likely to use innovative solutions to solve problems; instead, they resort to unethical solutions. On the other hand, when employees interpret competition as exciting, they are more likely to be creative.

The way competition is structured and communicated is imperative when creating a work culture. If competition is organized in a way that triggers fear and anxiety, it creates unhealthy competition and motivates unethical solutions.

The Role of Leaders in Creating a Healthy Competition

Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone for competition within the organization. How leaders create competition can alter how employees feel about their performance and creativity. Investing energy into generating positive consequences creates a healthy, competitive workplace. Here are some suggestions:

Shared Objectives

            Team goals help shift the focus from individual achievements to collective success. Collaboration reduces the likelihood of cutthroat competition and people acting in their own interests.

Open Dialogue

            Set up regular one-to-ones with employees to help set personal objectives with employees based on their strengths and weaknesses. Within these meetings, employees should be encouraged to express their concerns and ideas to normalize communication between employees and managerial positions.

            When employees depend on key performance indicators for their financial and emotional stability, it can create a destructive work environment. Instead, rewards recognizing progress and dedication can empower and incentivize workers to engage in friendly competition rather than cutthroat competition.

Offering Growth Opportunities

            Leaders should provide training programs, mentorship, or challenges that help employees expand their skills and knowledge. Investing in their employees’ growth, leaders showcase their dedication towards their team members and stimulate a good relationship with their employees.

When creating collaborative spaces, it is essential to ensure that all employees are heard, recognized, and invested in team building. There should be no perception of favoritism in the workplace, and all changes should be made by an organizational decision rather than those who have the highest power or merit. Bias can often lead to decreased motivation and cutthroat competition. Therefore, companies must be transparent and inclusive when attempting to create positive change.

healthy competition at work

Can Companies Change Their Work Culture?

Fostering a healthy work culture is a crucial aspect of a successful organization. As mentioned, leaders play a prominent role in cultivating a positive workplace. Building trust is a large part of creating healthy competition and a good relationship with their employees. According to Paul J. Zak:

“Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer.”

Many companies recognize that trust is vital to an organization's success, with 55% of CEOs thinking that a lack of trust threatens organizational growth but not knowing what to do about it. Paired with trust, employees need to understand their purpose, so how do we successfully provide a framework that encourages both factors?

What Happens in the Brain?

Zak conducted a study in which he measured oxytocin levels in the brain, a chemical that signals to the body that another animal is safe to approach. Stimulating and measuring oxytocin showed that when a person is trusted, it produces oxytocin and creates a feeling of trust, cooperation, and collaboration. "The more trust one is shown by others, the more oxytocin is released in the brain," which motivates people to work harder and engage in group tasks.

Overall, companies with higher levels of trust had 76% more engaged employees and 50% more productive at work. Similarly, they were 29% more satisfied with their life outside of work when employed at a high-trust organization. Here is what Paul J. Zak recommends to stimulate oxytocin and generate trust:

Recognize excellence

  • Acknowledging success and good work.

Induce “Challenge Stress”

  • Assigning tasks that are challenging but achievable.

Give people purpose and discretion

  • Allow employees to make decisions regarding how to complete work.

Enable job crafting

  • Allow people to choose which projects resonate with them.

Share information broadly

  • Being as transparent as possible to facilitate trust and respect.

Build relationships

  • Create opportunities for social interaction both outside and inside of work.

Facilitate whole-person growth.

  • Help employees grow personally and professionally.

Show vulnerability

  • As a leader, ask for help from employees and show a more human side compared to completely professional.



While competition is inherent in any workplace, the nature of the competition determines the health of the work culture. Cutthroat competition leads to stress, unethical behavior, and anxiety, creating a toxic environment that fosters distrust and a lack of collaboration. However, leaders are pivotal in transforming this culture to be healthier. By fostering trust, purpose, and collaboration incorporating a variety of other factors, an environment can be created in which employees are more engaged, satisfied, and productive. This transformation not only benefits the employees but also to the overall success and growth of the organization. A healthy competitive environment creates a culture where everyone feels valued, trusted, and motivated to give their best.


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