Competitive Culture and How It Damages the Workplace

In an increasingly complex and changing world, competitiveness seems to be the engine that drives every organization and work environment. But, at what price? What effect does it have on the employees? Find out in this article.
Competitive Culture and How It Damages the Workplace
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Competitive culture is the backbone of almost every stage in our society. It’s internalized from childhood, at school, and later, it intensifies when we enter the world of work. The English psychologist and philosopher, Herbert Spencer, coined the classic term ‘survival of the fittest’ to define this apparent need to compete among ourselves.

Nowadays, every organization faces constant competition to add value to themselves and stay in the market. But, at what price? Is it also necessary to develop an internal rivalry among the employees themselves? And, what effect does this have on the workplace? We’re going to explore.

“Nothing is ever done beautifully which is done in rivalship: or nobly, which is done in pride.” 

-John Ruskin-

Competitive culture in the workplace

Aristotle Onassis claimed, “I have no friends or enemies, only competitors”. This idea successfully exemplifies the vision of many big businessmen, those who completely dominate their businesses and employees. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that competitive culture has been on the rise in recent decades.

As Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter indicates in his book, Competitive Strategy (2009), competing is imperative for any organization. This strategy makes the difference in the economic terms and growth of any company, given the great rivalry and changes that occur in the business field and society in general.

The culture of competitiveness is a widespread phenomenon. Moreover, it’s increased as a result of globalization and will continue to rise with the ongoing development of new technologies. This explains why it’s common to see the same dynamics in the internal functioning of many companies. Yet, it’s a mechanism that, in certain cases, doesn’t bring the expected benefits.

How competitiveness affects the workplace

We all occasionally have to work in competitive environments. But, we need to know that internal competition between employees motivates some and discourages others. Indeed, not everyone experiences these types of situations in the same way. Beijing University (China) conducted a study that claims it’s the worker’s personality that mediates the kind of competitive behavior that translates into good performance.

However, the problem lies with organizations that establish a cutthroat competitive culture in order to achieve their objectives. They also tend to create work environments lacking in cooperation and cohesion. These are scenarios that, far from encouraging creativity and production, don’t provide any benefits. Next, we’re going to explore these dynamics.

Some employees process job competitiveness as a motivating force while others view these situations as stressful.

1. Conflicts in the workplace

The National Institute for Occupational Health in Oslo (Sweden) published an interesting analysis in 2022 on this topic. They claim that conflict in the workplace often results in sick leave. Indeed, the impact of these internal dynamics on organizations can be immense.

In many cases, the competitive culture of a company leads to differences, criticism, and even harassment among employees. The need for the employee to stand out and achieve merit by surpassing their peers shapes situations that are both uncomfortable and threatening.

2. Chronic dysfunctional stress

Labor competitiveness is productive in certain circumstances. In fact, if the mechanisms are well structured and a clear plan with specific objectives is created, the experience can be rewarding and successful. But, organizations dominated by a work environment where competitiveness is a constant, bring great psychological discomfort to their employees.

While stress at certain moments can be positive, when pressures and rivalry are a regular element of the workplace, the mental health of the employees ends up being affected.

3. Unethical behavior

An unstructured and rivalry-based competitive culture leads to cheating behaviors. Indeed, unethical responses and actions occur that can border on the criminal. It seems that if the employee’s only goal is to achieve more than the others and be the best in the team, cohesion, empathy, and mutual respect vanish. It’s then that rivalry results in threatening and dysfunctional realities.

4. Decreased productivity

Research conducted by the University of China claims that the most competitive employees are those who bring innovation to the company and who exhibit the most perceived self-efficacy. They claim it’s necessary to know under what circumstances and contexts these behaviors occur.

If the workplace is well structured and there isn’t ruthless competitiveness, there’ll be positive results. On the contrary, in contexts dominated by severe competition, the employees feel discouraged, thus productivity suffers.

One example can be seen in companies that publish statistics or tables of the achievements of some and the poor performance of others. Public exposure, and pointing out and highlighting certain people generates a substrate of constant pressure and discouragement.

If an employee has to protect their position in the company against colleagues who have become their rivals, it undermines their mental health.

5. Challenges that turn into threats

Competitiveness is driven by motivation and the desire to achieve. Employees require self-confidence when they have to challenge other figures in the workplace. There’s undeniably something enriching in these processes. This is because competition is a form of challenge and, when there are purposes and enthusiasm, great goals can be achieved.

The problem with the competitive workplace is that it’s cutthroat and employees don’t feel challenged, they feel threatened. Suddenly, their colleagues aren’t team members but rivals. They become figures who devise tricks and mechanisms to expose others and undermine their productivity. This isn’t an ethical or successful mechanism for any organization.

6. Conformism

Being immersed in an adverse, highly competitive, and exhausting workplace may result in conformism. This means that the employee, instead of improving their performance and self-efficacy, might choose to do the minimum so as not to get stressed or end up experiencing harmful situations.

Therefore, instead of striving to be the best, they prefer to be like everyone else and not try harder than necessary. This mechanism is simply a self-protection and survival response.

7. Mental health is affected

Some personalities adapt and see benefits in highly competitive settings. However, others are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety. While it’s true that the effects of competitive workplace culture vary among employees, in environments where rivalry is toxic and unintelligent, there are certain consequences. These effects are governed by the following:

  • The employee’s worth isn’t recognized.
  • Stress is constant.
  • Everyone in the workplace seems like a threat.
  • They start to take their problems and anxieties home.
  • They believe that, at some point, they’ll lose their job because they’re not competitive enough.

These variables are serious factors for the employee’s mental well-being. Indeed, psychological health is affected by persistent job competitiveness.

One of the biggest concerns that the employee has in a competitive work environment is being fired for not reaching the expected objectives or not being at the same level as the most successful workers.

Couple representing how to beat competitive culture through collaborative culture
In the workplace, it’s always preferable to foster a cooperative work culture.

The need for a cooperative work culture

Organizational effectiveness doesn’t always lie in creating competitive work environments for employees. Society and the business field are already hostile and complex places. It’s preferable to create mechanisms that model collaborative work environments.

Today, some well-known technology companies base their internal culture on training their workers in a cooperative mentality. In fact, this is the only way to face ongoing challenges and constant changes. Seeing colleagues as support and figures who are capable of encouraging creativity is tremendously valuable. The same isn’t true if they’re perceived as adversaries or threats.

Nowadays, every company is competing with dozens of organizations in the same sector. However, they don’t all create the same dynamics. But, to be capable of working together with synergy and innovation, they must all look together toward the same horizon. Only then will they achieve success.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.