By Tammy Zhu • March 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
Recent research reveals that we know who at work likes us, but not who competes against us. One study surveyed sales associates at a car dealership, where the sales associates cooperated in bringing in customers and making handoffs when needed, but also competed against each other for sales.
Each salesperson was asked questions to measure their feelings of liking, e.g. “How much do you like each of your colleagues?” Each salesperson was also asked questions to measure their feelings of competition, e.g. “How much do you see each of your colleagues as a rival?” Finally, each salesperson was asked questions about their perceptions of their colleagues’ feelings toward them, e.g. “How much do you think each of your colleagues likes you?” and “How much do you think each of your colleagues sees you as a rival?” Each question was followed by a list of names and a 9-point scale, where 1 indicated “not at all” and 9 indicated “very much.”
The results show that the sales associates could accurately tell how much a given coworker liked them, but their ability to tell how much a given coworker felt competitive against them was significantly weaker: “there was significantly less dyadic meta-accuracy overall for competition than for liking (liking: total effect = 0.43, p = .004; competition: total effect = -0.02, p = .44).”
One explanation is that in gauging their coworkers’ feelings toward them, sales associates consistently projected their own attitudes of their coworkers onto their perceptions of their coworkers’ attitudes toward them. These projections were effective for discerning liking since liking tends to be reciprocal (i.e. A’s feelings about B are similar to B’s feelings about A). But the projections were ineffective for discerning competition because feelings of competition tend to be less reciprocal: research has shown that people feel more competitive with those who outperform them than those who underperform them. This car dealership study found “significantly less reciprocity for meta-perception competition than for meta-perception of liking (liking: b = 0.43, p = .023; competition: b= -0.10, p = .16).”
In a second study, the same researchers surveyed college students who worked together in groups of three to five people in a work environment that promoted collaboration. Students were measured by only their group’s performance and not by individual performance. After ten weeks of working together, the students were asked the same questions as the car sales associates. Like the car salespeople, the students were significantly less accurate in predicting their group members’ feelings of competition than their group members’ feelings of liking: “liking: total effect = 0.35, p < .001; competition: total effect = 0.02, p < 0.001.”
Moreover, the study analyzed how each student’s GPA affected how much her group members liked her and how much her group members competed against her. The study found that the difference between any two group members’ GPAs did not affect their liking of one another, but group members did compete more against students with higher GPAs: “(r = .12, p < .001).” Interestingly, in both studies, a person’s liking of another was not correlated with a person’s competitiveness against another.
What do we do with this information, particularly as women lawyers? Like car dealerships, law firms value associates who are team players. At the same time, the structure of a law firm breeds competition: access to challenging assignments is limited; when the office is slow, there are not enough billable matters for everyone; as we go up the ladder, there is not enough room for every associate to make partner; even when we become partner, there are still many forms of competition. As associates, we are taught the importance of self-promotion and that especially as women attorneys we need to get better at promoting ourselves in order to get ahead. But promoting ourselves can come at the expense of promoting or raving about a teammate – it can become a way of competing with colleagues including fellow women. Like car dealerships, law firms promote camaraderie and competition.
Can we use this newfound knowledge to identify potential competitors and instead of becoming paranoid about being “blindsided” by unknown competitors’ attempts to cut us down, can we take care not to undermine the people we compete with and the people who compete with us? If we really do compete up and compete against coworkers who outperform us, then the people we compete against probably do not see us as competitors. In order to preserve these relationships, we need to take care not to “blindside” the people we compete with. Otherwise, we risk damaging a relationship. Similarly, by taking care to promote and give credit to team members who may see us as competitors based on job performance, we may be able to turn a potentially competitive relationship into a supportive one.
Am I being naïve? Adam Grant convinces me that I am not. In Give and Take, Grant quotes George Meyer, a key force behind The Simpsons’ success.
A lot of people feel they’re diminished if there are too many names on a script, like everybody’s trying to share a dog bowl…But that’s not really the way it works. The thing about credit is that it’s not zero-sum. There’s room for everybody, and you’ll shine if other people are shining.
The same could apply to being generous with those who we compete against and those who compete against us.