A little friendly competition is a good thing — it can help us push ourselves to the next level at work, motivate us to think creatively about professional problems, or make us get dressed and go out instead of spending all day at home wearing a Snuggie and eating Nutella out of a jar. Competition, more often than not, saves us from mediocrity and encourages us to do our best.
And a healthy competitive spirit between co-workers is totally natural and normal. But every so often, we are unlucky enough to cross paths with a co-worker whose competitive spirit cannot be described as "natural" or "normal;" rather, this co-worker's competitive spirit can only be described in swear words, or possibly via a GIF of a head exploding.
With a toxic competitive co-worker on the scene, regular work life turns into The Hunger Games; normal elements of the workday you used to look forward to, such as departmental meetings or after-work happy hours, suddenly become the setting for elaborate power struggles or epic undermining. Showing up at your once merry (or at least drama-free) office now feels like taking a daily trip back in time to middle school. A middle school that you could get fired from!
Whether your competitive co-worker is the kind who rules by fear and gossip campaigns, or who is simply an expert in shifting attention to her idea, you reactions are probably the same: an immediate urge to call out sick for a month, complain to your boss, or move to the mountains and open a home yam-pickling business.
And while the world does need pickled yams, we urge you to at least try out the tips below before leaving the professional world to become a mountain hermit. The competitive co-worker is a tough nut to crack, but sometimes, she can be tamed.
1. Make Sure This Isn't All Somehow an Epic Misunderstanding
I know, that sounds hopelessly naive. But sometimes people can seem evil when they're actually just kinda socially awkward. So, if you haven't already, try reaching out to your co-worker, and making sure she isn't steam-rolling your ideas in meetings just because she's not really sure how to talk in public.
2. Okay, Fine, it Wasn't a Misunderstanding — Now What?
You talked to your co-worker one-on-one, and have confirmed she's definitely ratcheting up the competition on purpose. Now's the time to figure out how you're going to proceed. Make a plan using the specifics of your situation. Can you team up with someone else for projects? Can you focus on work she can't get involved in?
3. Don't Lose Focus on Your Own Work
It's easy to let a competitive co-worker become the focus of your work day, if not your entire waking life. This, unfortunately, might be exactly what she wants. So fight it — stay focused on completing your own projects, and do your best to block out anything she does to bait you to compare yourself to her, or try to make you feel bad about your work.
4. Don't Get Iced Out Socially
Competitive co-workers can work in very obvious ways (like talking over your ideas in meetings), but sometimes they work more subtly, by manipulating the intricacies of office social life. This can make you want to throw up your hands and run straight home to the loving arms of your Snuggie or Nutella (or both). But don't.
Giving up on your office social life can have negative effects on being seen as a team player — but also, you just shouldn't have to stop hanging out with your co-workers because there's a jerk around. Try to cook up more on-on-one social situations that she can't automatically commandeer — at best, you'll find out she's driving your co-workers crazy, too, but at the very least, you'll get to enjoy a pleasant lunch hour for once.
5. See If There's a Way to Put Her Competitive Spirit to Work for You
If you've tried doing your own thing and focusing on your work, and your competitive co-worker is still an issue, it's time to bring out the big guns. Is there a way to put her blood-thirsty spirit to work for the office — say, on a particularly tough client or account — that will not only focus her attention away from you, but actually benefit the company? When executed correctly, this move can make you look benevolent (Look at you! Generously passing a client over to your new co-worker!) and tire her out so much, she won't have the energy to try to get your head on a stake any more. Everyone wins! Well, fine, you win. But I told you, these are the big guns.
6. Have a Serious Talk with Her
You've deflected, detached, and tried to run a Machiavellian scheme or two of your own. And she's still popping up in your office every half hour, talking about how she's been having such an amazing sales quarter? There's nothing to do but talk to her, womano y womano. Tell her that you don't find her approach to office life helpful and it's creating unnecessary stress and drama. She probably knows this, but you've got to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because if talking to her doesn't work, you have no option except to....
7. Talk to Your Boss
Your boss definitely doesn't want to talk to you about office problems. Your boss would like there to not be any office problems, of course, but even if there are, your boss would generally prefer you solve them on your own. So, if things hit the point where you see no option except going to your boss, make sure you have an ironclad case for why you can't deal with this co-worker on your own any more.
Explain how she's hurting morale within your department, or intimidating people so much that they let her take credit for their ideas. It might sound cold-blooded, but bringing evidence like emails can help. Going to your boss is a huge move, and you want to show that you're taking it really seriously.
8. Figure Out How to Deal
If you went as far as talking to your boss, and it had no impact, it's time to think about what steps to take next. Now that you know you did all you could, can you just block her out (or at least block her out 'til you find a new job)? Is there something about your company's culture that encourages (and then refuses to deal with) this kind of crappy behavior?
Be honest about what kind of toll continuing to work with her will take on you, and if getting a new job is the answer, don't let yourself feel bad about it, or feel like she "won." Because the only way you actually win at professional life is by having a job you don't hate to go to every morning.