Jockeying for Position
Learn how to keep your competitive
office thoroughbreds on track and reach the finish line in one
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,
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.