The Surprising Benefits of Having a Professional Rivalry

Has your career stalled? Are you feeling bored or uninspired? You might need a rival.

It’s true: Finding a Moriarty to your Sherlock Holmes might be just the thing you need to take your performance to a higher level. That’s because people’s aspirations are determined by their sense of how they are performing relative to others, explained Dr. Damon Centola, associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions.”

“Peer competition can help us to set our aspirations higher and increase the standards we hold ourselves to,” Centola noted via email.

But not all rivalries are beneficial; you need to make sure these kinds of “relationships” stay positive and healthy. Here’s how. 

Benefits of Rivalry

The combative rivalry between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates was extensively documented throughout the years, with Gates writing before Jobs’ death: “We were not at war. We made great products and competition was always a positive thing.”

Indeed, both companies and people can gain a competitive edge from rivalries, suggested Dr. Gavin Kilduff, associate professor of Management & Organizations for the Stern School of Business at New York University: “For instance, workers who have rivals tend to be more engaged, loyal and committed to their work.” Studies show that engaged employees are happier and feel more empowered to innovate or take charge of their professional development.

Research by Kilduff has shown that rivals tend to share similar attributes and characteristics, be evenly matched, and engage with each other frequently. Once a rivalry has been established, both parties are more motivated to win, pushing themselves to try harder.

In fact, research shows that just sitting next to someone who is highly productive can boost your own productivity and work quality by as much as 10 percent. When high-quality employees are placed beside each other, they each help the other improve.

This positive impact of competition is no revelation to sports fans: Athletes who go head-to-head compete more intensely and record better stats. Engaging in healthy competition can encourage perseverance, resilience and determination; it can make your work interesting and a lot more fun.

“The most important aspect of competition is goal-setting,” Centola added. Regularly benchmarking against a top-performing associate can help you identify gaps in your own performance or the need to master new technologies. People calibrate their ambition (and appetite for risk) via social comparison.

In that spirit, tech professionals who are competing against a rival for superiority may be more inclined to tackle boundary-stretching assignments. 

Avoiding the Downside

But when taken to extremes, a peer rivalry can turn negative or detrimental, especially in a team-oriented environment. How can you keep things positive?

Stay away from ‘enemyships,’ i.e., competing against someone in another team or group, Kilduff suggested. Also, stay away from win-lose situations: A rivalry is best when the participants see it as a game that everyone benefits from and enjoys.

A peer rivalry can lead to sabotage, infighting or cheating when the stakes are too high for losing or the rules are unfair, he warned. There must be a level playing field and mutual respect between competitors.

Centola agrees. “Positive competition is driven by a sense of camaraderie,” he noted. “When positive competition is at its best, everyone knows they are working hard, and they all feel that they are enjoying the challenge. When competition turns to war, it leads everyone to be worse off.”

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