How Can I Deal with Overly Competitive Teammates?

Q. Dear Annie:

Earlier this year I took up a position on a team, and we started out on a very optimistic note, with everyone pulling in the same direction. But recently, due to internal competition, mistrust has arisen among us. (I believe this is because our company still has a reward system that is based on individual performance, not team results.) Now I'm really uncomfortable, because I think we should be aiming at group excellence, not individual victory. Should I stay with this team? If so, how can I survive?


A. Dear Earl:

Unfortunately, the conflict you describe -- between the performance of the team and the good of individuals on it -- is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to making teams work. And, as you suspect, companies' failure to recognize team performance -- again, a widespread phenomenon -- may be at the root of it. But, says Lynda McDermott, president of EquiPro International, a consulting firm based in New York City that has helped iron out team problems for big clients including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, Bankers Trust, Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Mobil Oil, "when I go into a company where teams are not producing the results they should, I ask a whole series of diagnostic questions. And whether the company's pay policy overemphasizes individuals is usually not the central problem."

The first step in squelching "over-competitiveness" is to make sure that both team efforts and individual contributions are valued -- and that one is not at odds with the other. "Team versus individual doesn't have to be an either-or proposition; There has to be clear accountability at both levels," McDermott says. "What is this team trying to achieve? And who is responsible for each piece of it?" If that's not clear to your team now -- and it sounds as if it isn't -- it's something you all need to sit down and talk out. "People often become 'over-competitive' and begin trying to undercut one another because they are afraid that, in a team setting, their own contributions will get lost in the shuffle," adds McDermott. "And without clear goals and clear accountability, that does happen. So it's essential to hammer out who's doing what, and why."

Beyond that, McDermott notes, "people will unite behind a 'common cause,' some compelling objective that everyone can buy into. When that happens, individual differences tend to fade into the background. So one question to ask here is, why is there (apparently) nothing uniting your team? Has the team somehow lost its focus?" If so, it's up to the team leader to get things back on track by reiterating just exactly why the team exists in the first place, and making sure that everyone understands the point of the whole exercise. Sometimes, the real difficulty is that there is no good reason why a particular task needs to be done by a team at all, McDermott says: "The idea of teams has become so fashionable that some companies are trying to apply it to everything they do -- but not every task is suited to this approach. It's not one-size-fits-all. So, in cases where people have trouble working together because they really have no common goal, I've recommended disbanding teams altogether and using some other structure instead." It's hard to say, without knowing more of the facts, whether this is true where you are -- but it could be.

But, alas, certain people just have the wrong personality for teamwork -- i.e., are hypercompetitive and perennially mistrustful of others. If you make a real effort to analyze and fix what's creating the internal strife there, yet one or more of your teammates keeps throwing a wrench into the works, you may indeed want to look around for some other team to join. Life is too short to allow someone else's neurosis to trip you up.


All material within these Web pages is copyrighted. No part may be reproduced without the specific written permission of EquiPro International other than for non-commercial individual reference with all copyright or other proprietary notices retained.