Who Let the Dogs Out?

How to survive today’s competitive work environment.

By Leslie Stevens-Huffman | April 2008


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 in
competitive 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.

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