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Is Work Just One Big Competition?

A couple of years ago I read an interesting post asking if bloggers were in competition with each other.  Recently I have been contemplating the same thing with respect to the corporate world.    People talk a lot about working as a team, but if when we get down to it are we all really just in competition with each other?

Before we get started let me level with you on this topic.  This is a thought experiment.  There is no right answer but it is interesting to contemplate.

Teams are More Productive than Individuals

Now we all know the slogans.   “There is no I in team”.  We have also all seen the data.  You know the ones that show a cohesive team performs better than a set of completely individual top performers. There is no debating that teams are more productive the individuals.

Productivity Does Not Equal Success

But..  I’ll let you in on a secret.  Productivity is probably not what you are rewarded on, when you get down to it.  This is true whether you are talking team or individual productivity.  At least not in the vacuum of your own work outcome.

Company’s Reward Based On Individual Achievement

Let’s start with team productivity.  Frankly, very few companies reward individual employees based on team outcomes.    Many of you probably are only rewarded according to your own work.  Even those companies that do reward for teamwork still likely have a significant focus on the individual.

How, you ask?  Well, think about it.  Very few companies hand out bonuses or pay raises to everyone on the team in the same amount.    No, they usually target it to the people they want to retain. That focus again goes back to the individual rather than the team.

Still not convinced?  Think about promotions.  You don’t promote a team to more responsibility, you promote the person.  So even if compensation is tied to the team, career is not.  As such ultimately your reward system is tied heavily to perceived individual performance.

Are We All in Competition for Workplace Rewards?

So if we can establish work by its nature favors individual rewards, does that mean we are all competing for those rewards? Well, if you recall humans are comparative by nature.  Everything in life is put into a frame of reference related to some event in the past or something else.  So when your boss evaluates your performance what do they evaluate against?

Well, if you recall from our stock analysis post there are only two options.  Prior performance and like people.  

You are Probably Not Being Evaluated on Improvement in Your Abilities

Prior experience here is a bit of a lark.  The simple reality is top performers at their job eventually plateau.    But as a manager, you still don’t want those performers to walk out the door.  As such they are the most likely to be rewarded for sticking around but probably also the least likely to improve.  So prior experience is likely not the reference point most bosses would use.

You are Instead Being Compared to Your Peers, or in this Case Competition

No, instead most likely you are compared to your peers.  Sometimes this is explicit.  I have worked at two employers that have a ranking system for employees where only a certain percentage can be considered top employees.  In this case, it is an explicit competition between members of the team for the top rank and thus bonus.  

Other companies are a bit less explicit.  But still, you better believe your boss is considering which employee gets things done when asked with the least amount of handholding compared to their coworkers.  Again that’s an aspect of competition with your peers.  

Note: Purposely beyond the scope of this post are factors beyond productivity like stereotypes, nepotism, boss’s pet, etc.  In this case, I am trying to assume a fully functional positive work environment for our analysis.

Rewards Are a Big Part of Job Satisfaction for Most People

So we can establish explicitly or implicitly you are competing with others for rewards in your current position.  Those rewards, for most of us, are a big part of where we choose to work.  So we can establish that working in a corporate environment is in some respects competitive rather than a team sport.  Sure you have to work well as a team to get things done, but it becomes quickly obvious that individual performance trumps team (provided a company is not in dire straights) when it comes time for rewards to pass around.

Work is a Competitive Environment, Just One Where Teamwork is one of the Event

So what are the implications of all this?    Well, it certainly is not to be a poor team player.  As an individual goes up the corporate ladder you will find yourself needing to rely on your coworkers to get things done more and more.  At some level, many career paths become a function of delegating, removing roadblocks, and assisting when necessary.   Working well in a team is thus likely a requirement for an individual to go far in their career.  That means ensuring you fit well with the team and continuing to work to contribute to the team’s goals.  

In fact, the competitive nature of your job probably means very little when you are in it.  I.E. at most positively functioning companies you are not going to get a raise by making your coworkers look bad.  Severely political people and companies perhaps are the exception here, but again I am going to toss them out as hopefully an exception.

The Team You Join Can Decide Your Future Career

But it does mean something very important when it comes to a change of teams within a company.  Namely, it is to your advantage financially to evaluate your team members before joining a team.  You want them to be competent enough and well fit enough for you to succeed.  However, at the same time, it is to your advantage financially to pick teams where you will be the stand out performer.  Going into a team of star performers will likely mean less advancement or smaller pay raises.

My Last Move, Into The Gladiator’s Den of Competition

Frankly, I bucked this advice with my recent job change.  One big reason I changed jobs to my current one was to work with the cream of the crop at my employer.    My coworkers are all in different roles than me, some lower on the totem pole.  But I would argue they are the best my employer has to offer in their fields.   

In my case, I made a conscious decision to forgo higher pay opportunities for learning opportunities and people who challenge me.      I am near the end of my career progression, so honestly, I am focusing more on job satisfaction these days then pay.    I guess in a way I’m hoping their competition will raise my own game.   This is also probably a big reason I am still struggling with imposter syndrome, I’ve set a big mountain in front of myself on purpose.  Time to get climbing.

Do you view corporate work as a team sport or a competition?  How does your employer reward performance?


  1. xrayvsn
    xrayvsn August 14, 2019

    Fortunately as a physician there is not much need to claw your way to the top. It is still important to surround yourself with a good team (front office, x-ray techs, etc) to make you look good.

    We do have annual reviews in my department and as you mentioned the individuals that are part of a team but still standout are the ones that we wish to retain the most and give more financial incentives to do so.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 15, 2019

      Sounds like you do have some similarities even in the medical field.

  2. You’ve got me thinking here… I do find it interesting that individual performance is what is rewarded, though managers want you to be a team player. I guess it depends on the role.

    For my work, we have to work with a lot of different people in our team, so if someone isn’t a good teammate, then things will fall apart.

    I do think it’s a competition, but it’s a little more dynamic than a strictly win/lose result.

    Not sure what I’m saying here in the comment, I’m still thinking about what you wrote 🙂

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance August 19, 2019

      It’s a very deep philosophical question. Still your answers probably should drive how you approach career advancement.

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