Work Career Career Advice Now + Beyond

How to embrace your competitive side and still be a team player

I spent most of my twenties as a professional auditioneror what most people refer to as an actor.  On a daily basis, I’d go to multiple casting calls. Upon arrival, the receptionist would send me to a dimly lit room filled with chairs occupied by women with a similar physical description to myself. Then, after what sometimes felt like an eternity of tension, a production assistant would usher me into the casting room where I’d somehow sell my abilities in a few lines of dialogue. No pressure.

I always bought into the traditional idea that the entertainment industry was cutthroat, so when I decided to change careers at age thirty to pursue advertising, I was still acclimatized to the dog-eat-dog mindset. I figured I’d need to retire my competitive spirit and work cohesively with others towards campaign delivery and quarterly goals. At this point, I still saw things through a singular lens. I had a limited view of the acting world, where everyone was vying for one job. Then, moving onto the ad world, I had updated my approach to being a team player. But as I eventually learned, things weren’t quite that cut and dry.

We often categorize our environments as either ruthless, where we mentally suit up for battle, or as collaborative, where we act jointly with others. We also tend to view the people around us as either friends or foes. A black and white approach can help ensure a primal sense of safety, as we suss out threats or danger. But, this siloed view of opposition can lead to blind spots, or even a missed opportunity to give our best performance. In fact, for most of us, competition is a running theme throughout our whole lives. Whether it’s growing up with siblings, playing team sports, competing for a promotion, going head to head with others is a constant part of being human. And that’s not a bad thing. In healthy doses, competition keeps us alert and helps us attain our most notable goals. 

A big factor in the way we measure up the competition is the social comparison we embrace with one another. We see others succeed at something we want to do and it drives us to achieve those same results, or better. The U.S.’s first successful venture to the moon was rooted in seeing the Soviets fly to orbit first. Observing their success, America decided it could do better. But in other cases, social comparison can be detrimental. During the cola wars of the eighties, in an effort to beat out Pepsi for the top slot, Coca-Cola sweetened their recipe and called it “New Coke.” It completely flopped, resulting in Pepsi sales briefly skyrocketing. As damage control, Coca-Cola was forced to apologize to the 400,000 customers who wrote letters of complaint and rebranded their original recipe to “Coca-Cola Classic.” Whether they lead us astray or aid in success, social comparisons give us a perceived context in our accomplishments.

We also tend to view the people around us as either friends or foes.

Wherever you view yourself as a “competitor” or “collaborator,” the key to finding a balance may be checking in with yourself periodically. By asking yourself, “Am I losing opportunities to connect because I’m competing too much? or Am I being exploited because I’m cooperating too much?”, can help course correct and create a stable equilibrium. This can help serve our careers over the long term. Adam Galinsky, author of Friend and Foe: Balancing Competition and Collaboration explains, “We’re always cooperating, we’re always competing, and we should recognize that tension and also ask ourselves if we’re finding the right balance.” Simply asking yourself these questions can give you a sense of power and self-awareness to navigate the subtle and not-so-subtle signs with more confidence.

Broaden your horizons

Though the world tends to view competition in a generally positive light, the social comparison game can have toxic consequences when taken too far. Most of us have endured the frustration of seeing someone further ahead of us in an industry where we’ve worked hard. Then, that person or company becomes the focal point of what we need to surpass in order to consider ourselves successful. But, this tunnel vision thinking can actually limit results and prevent you from seeing the big picture. Entrepreneur Marie Forleo explains we have to take a broad view and stop thinking small. “Don’t look at one competitoryou want to look at what’s happening in your entire industry,” she explains. “Ask yourself how you can look outside of the box so you can innovate.” That means spending the majority of your time on your own work and focusing on specific competitors.

Keep a negotiation diary

When I entered the shiny, new world of advertising, I had a notebook on me at all times to keep track of tasks, and what I’d pitched in meetings. This was primarily a way of adjusting and learning about my new surroundings. But looking back at a year’s worth of notes, I realized not only had I been cooperating with colleagues to reach goals, but I was competing with them as well. We each pitched ideas during weekly meetings where only a few were acted on. We also went head to head for promotions and bigger assignments, while we all worked towards the same end goal. Keeping a written record of my initiatives also helped me examine my daily actions and decipher what my next career move should be.

Through hindsight, I’ve also realized the many collaborative moments in my former acting career. I frequently networked with fellow performers I met in the audition waiting room. We connected each other with agents, classes, and even exchanged our favorite plays and books on acting. Then, in the casting room, we often worked as scene partners to bring life to a script and help the director see the talents we both had to offer. This made me realize the inaccuracy in my stark view of competitive situations.

Both rivalry and squad goals are a part of everyone’s lives.

My journey has made me realize how often I’d categorized competition and collaboration as two separate mindsets and missed an important point. Both rivalry and squad goals are a part of everyone’s lives. Though competition can make us uncomfortable when we don’t get desired results, we can turn disappointment into motivation to do better next time. For those of us who worry about getting too caught up in the rat race, we can look for ways to cooperate and be of service to restore a sense of equilibrium. If we embrace the productive parts of the competition and still work together, we may find that inner stability and balance it takes to be the best.

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Work Career Now + Beyond

Who says business and friendship don’t mix? Here’s how to work productively with your bestie

I’ve always been a big fan of Behind The Music documentaries. Getting the backstage gossip on my favorite bands is a guilty pleasure I can get lost in for hours. But, as I found out more about how the Rolling Stones don’t speak to one another anymore, or the longstanding feud between John Lennon and Paul McCartney; it made me wonder if working with friends should be off-limits. Adding to that, a friend of mine once told me she mentioned her house-hunting budget to a coworker friend. This created tension during bonus season when she realized my friend earned more than her, although they performed the same role. Things can get even trickier when managers and their employees cross the friendship line and perception forms that one person is receiving a free pass or an advantage over others.

But, when navigated wisely and with the right dynamic, working with your pals can actually be an asset to business and productivity. And for every Beatles feud, there’s a prime example of a solid working friendship, such as the Foo Fighters (with longtime bandmates, Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins as best friends). Cooperating with those you share a bond with can capture a true authenticity in your work and creativity that you may not get with mere colleagues.

As human beings, we have a primal desire for close relationships. It’s why Tom Hanks befriended a volleyball when he was marooned in Castaway. It’s also the reason why solitary confinement is considered one of the harshest forms of punishment. Relationships are monumental to our emotional well-being. With the number of hours people put in at work these days, it’s now common that we have at least one good friend who’s either a colleague or business partner. Though there’ll always be those who prefer to keep their personal and professional lives separate, there can be huge advantages to doing business with pals or initiating friendship at work. When done wisely, it creates a built-in support system that encourages empathy and thinking outside the box. 

Sounds kind of perfect, right? Getting to work with someone who understands the different facets of your personality. In fact, according to a recent Gallup Poll, people who have friends at work are 43% more likely to receive recognition and praise for their job. But, like everything else in life, these relationships take work. Similar to bonding with a significant other, when friendship and work mix, you’re making a commitment to bring your fair share to the table, both as pals and colleagues. But to provide insurance against any future regret, it takes boundaries and clear communication.

Know your limits

Understanding expectations is crucial when walking the line between friendship and work. If you’re about to go into business together, lay out the rules and make sure you agree on each other’s roles. Decide who will have the ultimate say if you’re divided on a decision because there will be times in the union where you must agree to disagree, and still move forward. 

If you’ve become friends through your job, you still need to understand your own boundaries in how you approach colleagues at work. Referring to that expectation will set the tone for what’s appropriate to your relationship, and serve as a guide if one of you receives a promotion, or if you ever need to compete for an internal role in the future. 

Have friends in high places

You know that old saying: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know? It may be a bit frustrating to hear, and can even seem unfair at times. But some cliches stick around for a reason. And in the career arena, this one carries a heavyweight of truth to it. It’s no secret that your professional relationships make an impression about who you are at work.

If you’re looking to make friends at your office, choose wisely. When you start a new job, check out the lay of the land first. Make sure you’re adding like-minded people to your professional community. The people you surround yourself with don’t necessarily need to have the same goals as you, but they shouldn’t hold you back either. The same goes when choosing a business partner or new hire. Don’t choose them just because they’re fun to have a beer with. When making a decision like this, imagine you’ve never met before, and you’re viewing their credentials on paper. This will help you decide whether your goals are aligned and if your pal really is the best candidate.

Say sorry like you mean it

Whether it’s love birds or business partners, anyone in a close relationship who says they’ve “never had a fight” is probably lying, and if they’re not, there may be a whole lot of bottled resentment headed for self-combustion. As humans, we’re basically wired to get on each other’s nerves from time to time. When it’s your turn to apologize, there’s a single word that entrepreneur Marie Forleo says you should never utter in your sorry speech. That’s the word “if.” As in, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings or I’m sorry if you feel that way.

“When you say if, you take all the responsibility away from you, and you actually put it on the other person, and it makes them feel like crap,” Forleo explains. 

Simply saying, “I’m sorry I made this mistake. What can I do to make it right?” shows that you’re taking ownership of your actions.  Also, remember no matter how close you are with your pal, you can’t pressure them into forgiving you on the spot. Allow the situation time to decompress and don’t rush the process. They’ll come around in their own time.

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In past years, whenever the possibility of working with friends came up, I instantly had sweaty palms. But after seeing multiple examples of working friends where their bond made their work better, I’ve officially rethought my position on it. I now see it as an opportunity to create something great and strengthen the relationship in a way many people don’t get to experience in their lifetime. 

Longstanding business relationships will always present at least some ups and downs. Of course, you’ll never find the perfect business partner or colleagues, but the fear many of us have about mixing business and friendship may be unfounded at times. Strong friendship and loyalty can help create great work. When a business has heart behind it, people take note. It’s amazing what happens when friends go out on a limb and truly support one another. 

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