DiceTV: Surviving Dog-Eat-Dog Competition

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How to survive today’s competitive work environment.

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman

It’s not your imagination: Today’s work environment is dog-eat-dog. While some IT professionals thrive under highly competitive conditions, it makes others dog tired.

Global competition, downsizing and the constant need to acquire new technical knowledge all contribute to the frenetic pace and competitive nature of the modern tech workplace. In some cases, competition among employees is actually fostered by a company’s reward system. For IT professionals who aren’t invigorated by competitive conditions, the solution is to change themselves or their surroundings.

“Whether or not someone can thrive in a competitive work environment is really determined by a person’s genes,” observes Ron Paxton, president of ExecsCoach, an executive coaching firm based in Oakland, N.J. “IT professionals tend to be a bit more introverted, so they don’t often thrive in a competitive environment. Instead, they find it draining.”

To keep the dogs from nipping at your heels, determine your tolerance for competition  and heed these suggestions.

Know Yourself

“During the dot-com era, guys would come to me who were overweight and stressed out,” says Maynard Brusman, a career psychologist, executive coach and president of Working Resources, based in San Francisco, Calif. “But, they were totally focused on the stock options and they just didn’t want to give those up, even though they were becoming candidates for heart attacks.”

While assessments can scientifically determine your ideal working conditions and your financial motivation, Brusman says IT professionals can gauge their own competitive tolerance by logging daily events and the emotions evoked by each situation. If your diary frequently lists emotions like frustration, anger or depression, you’ll burn out unless you develop coping skills or change your work environment.

Change Your Environment

If your genes drive you toward a less competitive environment, perhaps you can stay with your current company by transferring to a different team. Brusman has  helped many IT professionals find solace, even incompetitive environments like Google and Hewlett-Packard, by suggesting they transfer to less-competitive teams. Because executives believe competition enhances productivity and drives out poor performers, competitive cultures often start at the top of an organization. However, within large companies there are usually some managers who create an oasis by selecting people with less competitive natures for their teams.

If you must change companies, do your homework and ask past and present employees and interviewers pointed questions to assess the competitive climate. For example:

  • What are the performance expectations for the position? How frequent are the evaluations and how are performance ratings developed? Many companies have forced ratings structures, where managers must rate a percentage of employees as performing below expectations. That nurtures competition between  employees.
  • How are raises and bonuses determined? Again, in some companies managers must divide a set pool of funds. In order for one employee to win, another must lose.
  • How many internal employees were promoted last year? It’s all about ratios: The more people vying for each promotion, the competitive things are going to be.
  • What is the annual turnover rate and why do people leave?
  • What is the average number of hours worked each week? While working hard doesn’t always translate to a competitive environment, it’s a good indicator, especially if employees regularly forego vacation.

Change Yourself

Resiliency is a life skill that can help you survive in competitive environments. Work-life balance helps employees remain resilient, because it keeps work in perspective. When people build their sense of self-worth strictly through career achievement, they find it hard to rebound from setbacks. People who are physically active and have interests outside of work can better cope with competitive stresses.

“It’s great to receive feedback from others,” says Brusman. “Ask co-workers how they see you reacting to stress and find people at work who seem to handle the competitive environment well, and ask them for their secrets. You might be surprised what they tell you. Surviving a competitive work environment is often just a matter of reframing each
situation and looking at it another way.”

Leslie Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.