Want to be surrounded by some of the most competitive people on the planet? Work in sales, where paychecks, bonuses, promotions, and stature are usually tied directly to organizational quotas and individual results.
Competition can be a good thing. But often it goes too far — and ironically, performance can suffer for it. Research in recent years shows that sales teams do better when members collaborate with one another. But some salespeople make that almost impossible.
Having spent 25 years in this field, I’ve come across some hypercompetitive people who wouldn’t lift a finger to help a colleague and others who clashed regularly with coworkers, getting into arguments that sucked up time and energy.
When I found myself struggling with this, I hired a business coach and did a lot of hard work, learning how to turn these kinds of conflicts around. And in the process, I realized something else that shocked me: Some of my sales colleagues saw me as the difficult one.
These are the steps I took. They made a big difference for me, so I thought I’d share them here.
Do a 360. I was convinced that I was a team player, a collaborator, willing to put the goals of the sales unit on equal footing with my own. But then I did a 360 analysis. Coworkers answered questions about whether I showed respect for all team members, sought input from them, helped others when needed, and supported the team by placing “a premium on collaboration, cooperation, and contributing to others’ success.”
Two of the respondents answered “seldom” for every question. The other two were split between “frequently” and “always.”
I had to face the reality: Some colleagues saw me as excessively competitive. I could no longer blame “difficult people” without accepting that I was one of them. That made me realize that one hypercompetitive colleague in particular — who had a terse, protective style when I tried to talk with him — might simply have been responding to my behavior.
While this process was humbling, it was also empowering. It forced me to focus on the only part of the equation I could control: myself.
Seek three outcomes. With that in mind, I dug into where I was going wrong. I was fiercely determined to hit my sales goals and keep my job. That drove every interaction. It was rational, of course, but also self-serving and defensive. And my hypercompetitive colleagues were surely behaving the same way.
Now, when I interact with a co-worker, I strive for three outcomes: what I want, what the other person wants, and ways to achieve both for the betterment of the company. And I make a conscious effort to give them equal weight.
If I’m looking for insight on a prospect, for example, and a colleague knows the client, I’ll request a meeting with the colleague — but I’ll also look for a way to return the favor so we can hit higher numbers all around. And afterward, I take note of the results, how the process went, and whether the relationship has improved.
With this approach, I’m closing more deals than when I was focused almost exclusively on my own targets.
Address conflicts directly but tactfully. There have been times that colleagues of mine had stunning successes, striking big deals with hard-to-get clients. I wanted to learn from them, so I’d ask for ideas or advice — and they’d often tell me to back off (sometimes using harsher language).
I knew why, of course. They wanted to be the top performers, and they worried that sharing details of their successes was tantamount to ceding ground.
So I learned to address these struggles candidly, in the most tactful way I could: by placing the onus on myself. I’d say, “Hey, I feel like I’m struggling when we communicate. What can I do better?” Sometimes I explained that I was working with a coach because I wanted to be able to build better relationships at work.
The results generally split into three categories. Some colleagues would reconsider their own ways of communicating, as well and become more willing to collaborate with the rest of the sales team.
Others would say they were glad I brought this up — because, to them, I was the problem. But in time, they’d let down their guards. And then there were the people who still seemed determined to lock horns. With them, I tried the next strategy.
YOU AND YOUR TEAM SERIES
Make them (feel like) your mentors. This may seem counterintuitive, but it can work. If you have hyper-competitive colleagues, try turning to them for counsel. But rather than asking them what they do (which may feel like a trade secret to them), ask for their opinions of what you’re looking to do.
You might say something like, “I have a couple of ideas for how to expand a deal as I advance it to the next stage in my funnel. I think I know which one is better. Is this what you think I should do? Could you tell me what’s in my blind spot?”
Almost everyone appreciates being asked for input. It’s a sign of admiration. It helps remove the competitive dynamic, making the other person more of a supporter and collaborator.
There’s neuroscience behind this. A study from Carnegie Mellon and NYU found that people “experience pleasure” from “punishing” a competitor. But they experience that same pleasure — a “reward response” in the orbitofrontal cortex — in even larger amounts when cooperating with someone they do not view as a competitor.
Learn from your private life. Most of us have actually been dealing with excessively competitive people since we were little. The kid on the ball field who couldn’t accept a loss or an out. The teen who had to act cooler than everyone else. The alum at the high school or college reunion who had to have the best, most successful life. We generally know how to deal with these people: accept that they’re secretly insecure, and don’t let them bother us.
I’ve found that thinking back to these examples in my private life helps me at work. If none of the steps above improve matters, I know I’ve put in a worthy effort — and I move on. Sometimes that’s all you can do.