We're all a bit competitive. We all want the best job, the best grades or just the best seat on the train. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. A healthy competitive streak makes sure we get what we deserve in life. But some people take competition too far. They'll go to any lengths to get to the top of the tree, even if it means pushing other people off the ladder on their way up.
You'll come across overly competitive people in all walks of life, from your weekly six-a-side touch match to the office or boardroom. They have to win at all costs, and those costs can include your own peace of mind. You can avoid them, of course, but that's not always possible. So here's how to identify the ultra-competitive among us, and deal with their antisocial behaviour.
How do you know if someone is overly competitive?
First off, it's worth remembering that being competitive isn't bad — just being overly so. If somebody wants to be the best, but balances that with respect for his teammates or colleagues, his competitiveness isn't a problem. Overly competitive people tend to value winning above everything else, even friendship. So their desire to be first, or to garner most praise and admiration from others, or to win, often includes being nasty, spiteful, backbiting or sneaky. They may put you down behind your back, especially if they view you as competition.
Things could be getting worse. The economic downturn means that — in terms of work — more of us are competing for fewer resources, bringing out a selfish streak in some. One survey found that, on average, workers view about a third of their colleagues as competitive to a negative degree.
Why are some people overly competitive?
Extreme competitiveness seems to be part and parcel of some personality types. Many successful business people are described as having a type A personality — which means they're driven, impatient, often hostile and usually highly competitive.
Others have self-esteem issues, and constantly feel the need to judge their achievements against those of other people. Some have adopted what psychologists refer to as a 'scarce resource model', which means they see everything in black and white.
Put simply, they think that if you've got something they can't have it too, so they strive to beat you to it. Some people are simply narcissistic and arrogant, and see you, according to psychologist Dr Melanie Greenberg, "as a potential threat to their own success, or as an object to use or manipulate in order to meet their own needs or increase their resources".
The effect of their behaviour can be serious. Greenberg believes competitive people "can provoke feelings of irritation, anxiety, or inadequacy". The constant battle to keep a competitive person at bay can leave you exhausted and even depressed.
Dealing with an overly competitive person
According to psychologists, there are several ways you can deal with the colleague who always grabs credit for collective work or the friend who always has to go one better.
Choose your friends, and colleagues: If there's a painfully competitive character in the office or in your group of friends, surround yourself as much as possible with more cooperative people. Show a united front. You don't have to be mean to him - some light-hearted banter about his win-at-all-costs nature will show him that you're on to him, and that you're no pushovers.
Give praise: Strange as it may seem, giving overly competitive people praise can sometimes disarm them and persuade them to see you as an ally rather than a competitor. This won't mean they change their behaviour — they'll just direct it towards other people rather than you. It works if their ultra-competitive streak is caused by insecurity.
Change the subject: Whether it's a colleague bragging about grabbing the biggest contract or a friend who can't help bringing up his death defying adventures, the simplest tactic is just to change the subject. Do it a few times and they may get the message. It's a bit brutal, so you should only use it if their competitive bragging is really getting everyone's goat.
Do big up your own achievements: In work situations, however, bigging yourself up can work. In particular, coolly reminding an ultra-competitive colleague of your own achievements can work wonders. Competitive people are often impressed by status, and by reminding them of yours you may gain their respect. Of course, they may still want to overtake you, but they won't want to knock you down while they're doing it. They may see you as someone who might be useful to them — and someone to keep on side.
Be cooperative: Make a virtue of your own cooperative nature. Suggest ways of working with your competitive colleague and make sure a few important people know about it. Always make sure you have enough work and responsibility to showcase your own talents, and at the end of a project praise everyone involved, so Mr Competitive will look particularly self-centred — and dishonest — if he tries to take all the credit for himself.
Be on your guard: At the same time, if you're up against someone so competitive he's prepared to be devious and conniving you need to stay on your guard. Don't share information with him that he can use to support his own claims, and make sure — as above — that your own work gives you the chance to shine.
If his behaviour gets out of hand, you may have to have a word with the boss. In a private moment, let him know that the success was due to collective effort, and that your competitive colleague is in danger of undermining team morale.
If an overly competitive friend or colleague is harming your health, happiness or career, you don't have to put up with it. By invoking a few easy strategies, you can put them in their place or make them direct their competitive attentions elsewhere.