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Leader's Edge Jockeying for Position

Learn how to keep your competitive office thoroughbreds on track and reach the finish line in one piece.

By  Julia Kramer

Professional jockeys and their steeds anxiously enter the starting gate, eager to start racing. They wait for the bell to ring and the gate to swing open. Then, in a blink, they’re off.

As the speeding pack maneuvers for position, the pacesetters establish themselves while others bide their time and wait for the right moment to make their move. Each rider feels the adrenaline rush. Careers turn on the outcomes. The riders know that only the winner takes home the trophy, the cash and the chance to ride again.

Jockeying for position in the office occurs just as often as at the racetrack, and it occurs at every position and every level. To pretend it doesn’t exist, or to label all competitive behavior as negative, is to dismiss the concept of a healthy rivalry. Yet, unlike at a horse race, at work there can be multiple winners. Even if we fail once in a while, we get the chance to ride again.

But there is a dark side to competition. When a number of people are after the same title, additional staff, attention or power, and each is struggling to be the lone victor, negative behaviors emerge. It’s a smart manager who pays attention to and manages this competition. Use the following tips from the racetrack to ensure that everyone arrives at the finish line in one piece.

Check the starting gate. Ensure that those in competition get started on the right foot. You’ll avoid a lot of problems later on. Make sure no one unfairly gets out in front because he or she has more resources, including access to decision-makers, mentors and coaches. Let your staff know that, for one person to win, someone else does not have to lose. Encourage them to help each other and recognize those who do. Make it clear that unsportsmanlike conduct is not acceptable, and just as a jockey is sanctioned for deliberately running a fellow rider into the rails, ensure that those who strive to win to the detriment of another face consequences.

Identify an outrider. At the racetrack, the outrider is charged with making sure that everyone follows the rules of safety and etiquette. They are also there to help if something goes wrong. Human resources staffs are frequently corporate outriders, but anyone that has a helpful nature, knowledge of the rules, and the skill and authority to enforce them fits the bill. For the outrider to do his job, there must be rules to enforce. Define behaviors that are positive and desired, such as collaboration and teamwork, and those that are destructive and prohibited, such as fingerpointing and gossip.

Set the pace. It’s your job to model what you expect of your staff. Just as the pacesetter horse sets the speed that the others emulate, you must set the pace in your department or firm. Failing to do so leaves staff to their own devices: Eager beavers gallop ahead and make careless errors in their haste; slow starters lag behind, reducing productivity and the efficiency of co-workers; and middle-roaders never realize their full potential.

Show your staff what you want in terms of quantity and quality of work, creativity and initiative. Establish deadlines, sales targets, checkpoints and standards. Make sure you are clear about how you want them to work with and treat each other. Courtesy, collaboration, professionalism and integrity should top the list.

Don’t beat a dead horse. Spread this message: In a competitive situation, some individuals will resort to referencing, ad nauseam, the failures and missteps of their competitors, thinking that if they denigrate another person enough times, they will look better in comparison. Remind them that no matter how many times you beat a dead horse, you will never make it run faster. Similarly, repeatedly besmirching the character of another will never make people think better of you. Just the opposite. It gets old fast, and it makes people uncomfortable. They quickly lose interest and eventually lose trust.

Celebrate the wins. No race is over until the trophy is awarded, the crowd cheers and cameras flash. When a member of your staff successfully finishes a project, meets a sales goal or overcomes a significant challenge, celebrate! Make sure you thank everyone involved—even if that means thanking the entire staff. Remember, without the trainers, stable managers and grooms, the jockey would have nothing worth riding. And without his competitors, there would be no horserace to win.

As a successful manager, you know that the job of running a department, division or firm is an enormous task. Don’t let the job or the people get the best of you. If a 110-pound jockey can deftly manage a 1,500-pound horse at breakneck speeds, you can manage an ambitious and competitive staff. Stay in control, be confident, calm and firm, and celebrate when you reach the winners’ circle.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.


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Got a human resources problem you can?t resolve? Ask our HR guru Julia Kramer, SPHR, how to handle those sticky personnel issues everyone wants to avoid.