Dealing With Unhealthy Competition in the Workplace

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Tribal Leadership" by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is your organization rife with ladder-climbing sharks? Are people working together or against each other?

According to Tribal Leadership, Stage 3 is the most common work culture, and it’s where most professionals spend much of their careers. Stage 3 features shark-like competition, office politics, and high-powered professionals striving to dominate their workplaces. Authors Dave Logan, Halee Fischer-Wright, and John King explain how to determine whether your organization is in Stage 3 and how to progress to Stage 4.

Keep reading to understand unhealthy competition in the workplace and to learn how to move your organization beyond it.

Stage 3: The Competitive Workplace

Stage 3 is the most common of the stages. This is the domain of “lone warriors,” where big egos jockey for power and personal accomplishment. We’ll explain Stage 3 key markers—values, language, and relationships—and we’ll describe how to coach individuals from Stage 3 to Stage 4. Last, we’ll detail how Stage 3 individuals can become tribal leaders by realizing the value of Stage 4 and tribal cooperation. 

Stage 3 individuals want to win, and they excel at climbing the ladder of accomplishment. They’re lifelong high-achievers who’ve always strived to be at the top of the class, get the best recommendations, and surpass their coworkers. However, the authors explain that, beneath the ambitious exterior, each Stage 3 individual fears that he isn’t quite the best. Because he feels insecure about his accomplishments, he hides his weaknesses behind a veneer of self-reliant competence.

Because Stage 3 individuals are highly individualistic, Stage 3 tribes don’t form explicitly. Instead, Stage 3 culture prevails: the tense atmosphere of unhealthy competition in the workplace, dominated by office politics and ego-centered sharks.

Is the Competitive Workplace Vanishing?

While the authors’ description of a competitive, political workplace is familiar to many, recent trends suggest that collaboration is taking over. With the coming-of-age of the millennial workforce—88% of whom report they prefer collaboration over competition—the competitive, individualistic workplace captured in shows like Mad Men is declining. 

Today’s workers prefer transparency, accountability, and a clear sense of how they fit into the team, as well as flexibility in their working hours and location. This is because to the millennial employee, happiness and overall fulfillment matter more than career success

Given that the competitive workplace is in decline, the authors’ model might need an update: They argue that no individual can skip a stage, but many millennials might be jumping right to Stage 4, where teamwork is the norm. If this is the case, then Stage 3 might not be a concrete reality so much as a temporary cultural phase in an ever-changing work culture.

Three Key Markers of Stage 3

Marker #1: Personal accomplishment trumps all else. Stage 3 individuals play to win. They feel driven by personal accomplishment, and they tend to strive for increasing power and prestige. The authors emphasize two aspects of this marker:

  • Aspect #1: Egocentric values—A Stage 3 individual talks about values, but about his values. In his view, values are what he sees as important, and he may be oblivious to other people’s values. As such, he fails to appeal to shared values and, by pushing his own values on his coworkers, he causes disharmony rather than creating unity.
  • Aspect #2: The belief that “you get what you work for”—Stage 3 individuals believe that if you work hard, you’ll reap the benefits—for example, becoming a doctor or CEO. If you’re lower down the ladder, it’s your own fault—you couldn’t be bothered to work for something better. 

In accord with their individualistic values, Stage 3 individuals work harder than most others and tend to succeed in their fields. But they also see most colleagues as inferior, and this prevents them from seeking support when they need it. Because of this, they often feel perpetually overworked and under-supported.

The “Orange” Value Meme

In Spiral Dynamics, Don Beck and Chris Cowan describe an “orange” value meme that corresponds to Tribal Leadership’s Stage 3. At the orange value meme, individuals are driven by a desire to improve themselves, accumulate material rewards, and to use rational, strategic thinking to dominate and win. Beck and Cowan argue that “orange” originates from Ancient Greece, where the first stirrings of individualism, rational thought, and virtuous living began. 

In the workplace, Stage 3 individuals can be antagonistic and difficult. At the same time, the ambitious individual is an important modern phenomenon: People weren’t always so willing to reach above their peers and accomplish more, and this very ambition drives productive business competition and innovation. In turn, this led to the world of luxuries and sophisticated technologies that the West enjoys today—which, while not without problems, is a form of progress.

Marker #2: Egocentric language. According to the authors, Stage 3 individuals put the focus on themselves, using language that highlights their views, ideas, and accomplishments. A Stage 3 individual might say, “That’s wrong, let me try,” or, “I know best.” This occurs both in formal work settings and among Stage 3 peers in casual situations. 

  • In formal settings: The authors assert that Stage 3 individuals jockey for the spotlight in meetings, each pushing their own opinions while disregarding others’. Imagine a board meeting with a handful of individuals who think they have it right, and they all argue unproductively or seek to undermine each other.
  • In casual settings: Stage 3 individuals banter and deprecate one another—each nonchalantly puts down the others and emphasizes his own accomplishments. Imagine a group of lawyers bragging in turn about their most recent victories—“Sure, you won that small-time tax fraud case, but remember when I took down those board members who embezzled $15 million?” 

(Shortform note: In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday argues that an overactive ego hinders real success. But because many famous, successful people have large egos, we’ve come to think that ego and success go hand-in-hand. This is wrongheaded, and Holiday recommends instead learning to control your reactive, emotional ego. To do so, he advises that you stop talking and thinking so much about yourself and focus instead on taking decisive, effective action toward your goals.) 

Marker #3: One-to-one relationships. To defend and further his ambitions, the Stage 3 individual relies on gossip and spies to gain information and win in office politics. As the authors explain, this is especially true If he feels that his position is insecure, and he’ll do whatever it takes to maintain his power. To do this, he uses several tactics:

  • Tactic #1: He creates one-on-one relationships. The Stage 3 individual uses two-person relationships with individuals lower down the company ladder. These spies gather gossip, dirt, and other intel that help him stay on top of office politics. He manages these relationships with charisma, manipulation, and/or bribery. 
  • Tactic #2: He prevents his spies from meeting each other. To keep his position secure, he makes sure that none of his spies know each other. According to the authors, this helps him keep tight control of the information that comes to him.
  • Tactic #3: He avoids meetings if possible. Since his spies don’t know each other, and because he has a lot of information to keep under wraps, the Stage 3 individual tries to avoid situations where his intel could come to light, such as through uncareful conversation in a meeting.

The downside of all this, the authors say, is that the Stage 3 individual spends a ton of energy to stay on top of these relationships and the information each person delivers. With too many spies, he risks mixing up what he’s said and to whom—as well as what he’s heard and from whom. In addition, keeping his spies separate can make him feel isolated and disconnected, which may drop him to Stage 2. Meanwhile, he’s often blind to the situation he’s created. 

Power Play and Avoiding Manipulation

In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene argues that the game of power-seeking constantly goes on around us, and there’s no way to opt out of playing. Given this, you can either remain a pawn or become a master player. Greene breaks down an extensive collection of tactics that power-seekers often use, many of which hinge on deceiving the people around you. Greene’s rules span several themes:

Adopt a power mindset: Learn to think strategically and expect manipulators.

Communicate with power: Learn to sense people’s emotions and how persuasion works.

Enhance your power: Learn to act in your own interests while concealing your plans.

Act decisively: Learn how to crush others’ power and act on opportunities.

Avoid pitfalls: Guard yourself against counterplay and maintain your position.

While you might not want to play this Stage 3 game, knowing the laws can help you recognize manipulative people and avoid their machinations. Study the rules in-depth to learn how power players think. Then, you’ll be able to recognize when someone in your life is maneuvering for power and, if necessary, prevent them from harming you.

Stagnant Stage 3 Individuals Can Create Stage 2 Cultures

According to the authors, individuals can get stuck at Stage 3—stuck in the tense, power-seeking dynamics of office politics. These individuals are often managers or bosses, and they often feel superior to their direct reports. As such, they treat lower-level employees with contempt or disrespect. 

Such a Stage 3 boss treats his employees poorly because he also feels replaceable and unappreciated—but he’s oblivious to his behavior. Further, he might drive Stage 2 individuals backward by treating them poorly. For example, the authors suggest that he might lower someone’s pay without telling them, or gradually push them out of office social life.

(Shortform note: In Leadership and Self-Deception, the Arbinger Institute calls this state of dumping your stresses on others being “in the box.” In other words, you know how to behave better but take the easier route of blaming someone else for the problem. An individual stuck “in the box” will justify his behavior by rationalizing or making excuses.)

This sort of boss also tends to hire Stage 2 individuals, because candidates who could surpass him in ambition or ability threaten his ego and his position. This allows him to dominate his office, but it exacerbates his feelings that there’s nobody competent to help him out. 

The authors explain that this kind of Stage 3 individual hasn’t fully overcome Stage 2. Deeper down, he still feels that his life sucks. To overcome this, he needs to overcome any feelings of powerlessness that perpetuate his mindset.

(Shortform note: The Arbinger Institute also explains in Leadership and Self-Deception that individuals stuck “in the box” see other people as problems, rather than humans. This explains why a Stage 3 individual hires unthreatening candidates—to reduce any future “problems” that person might cause for him. The Arbinger Institute recommends overcoming this limitation by recognizing that everyone is human, and that we all have needs deserving of fair consideration.)

Surmount Stage 3 Before Moving On

According to the authors, Stage 3 players inevitably hit a wall that they can’t overcome. Sheer willpower and individualistic ambition take them far, but to move beyond that wall they must learn to play on a team. The upside is that such individuals have proven themselves in the crucible of Stage 3. They’ve paid their dues and spent their time working hard and developing skills, strength, and experience—qualities that will matter at Stage 4, too. 

In other words, Stage 3 veterans thoroughly understand how Stage 3 works: its benefits, the challenging terrain, and the competitive spirit needed to win. By fully “owning” Stage 3, they ready themselves to move on to Stage 4, where they’ll repurpose the positive parts of Stage 3 and leave behind the negative parts.

(Shortform note: The authors stop short of explaining how an individual can own Stage 3. However, the solution may be as easy as engaging in self-reflection, a key meta-cognitive skill that enables you to understand your internal experiences—thoughts and emotions—so you can make sense of them and improve your conduct. Gregg Henriques, a psychologist and director at James Madison University, recommends using the C.A.L.M. framework: Approach your inner experience with Curiosity, Acceptance, Love, and the Motivation to grow. Over time, this helps you develop a coherent narrative of your internal experience and better understand yourself, which can contribute to moving past Stage 3 behaviors that hinder personal growth.) 

Paths to Stage 4: Recognize the Power of Tribes

The authors describe two paths from Stage 3 to Stage 4: from late Stage 3 to Stage 4 tribal leadership, or from Stage 3 individual ambition to Stage 4 teamwork.

Path #1: Three Insights Produce Tribal Leaders

The authors explain that to become a tribal leader, you first need to reach Stage 4 yourself. They describe three insights that lead to a deeper understanding of Stage 3, Stage 4, and tribal leadership:

  • Insight #1: Realize that Stage 3 success is merely individual. Aspiring tribal leaders realize that individualistic ambition merely serves the individual. Consequently, they see that Stage 3 doesn’t afford them real power or the ability to have a lasting impact.
  • Insight #2: Realize that Stage 3 can’t solve its own limitations. You can’t solve Stage 3 problems with Stage 3 methods. An individual who tries to fix the problems caused by excessive individualism with more tenacious, driven individualism hasn’t understood the problem.
  • Insight #3: Realize that the tribe is what really matters. After seeing that Stage 3 leaves no lasting impact, and that it can’t solve its own problems, aspiring tribal leaders tend to realize that what they really want is to serve a greater mission. Often, this means giving back to the world—usually by serving the tribe they thought they’d been helping. 

Once an aspiring tribal leader realizes these insights, she’ll often begin to listen more than she talks, the authors say. By listening to tribe members and getting to know the tribe, she builds toward Stage 4, where people work as a united whole. As the tribe recognizes her burgeoning leadership, they’ll begin to support and empower her. In turn, she begins to live in service of her tribe. Ultimately, she recognizes that real success is tribal success.

Overcoming Developmental Plateaus

While the authors don’t describe precisely how to realize these insights, the process likely involves engaging in the inner work of reflecting on your experiences, examining your strategies, and reworking your approach to work. One principle that can help is “transcend and include,” which describes how one developmental stage progresses to the next.

Ken Wilber, a prominent intellectual, writer, and founder of the Integral Institute, contends that any stage of development must “transcend and include” the former stage. In other words, it preserves the structures of the earlier, simpler stage, and transcends it by organizing those structures to give rise to a more complex structure. For instance, molecules transcend and include atoms; cells transcend and include molecules; and organisms, such as humans, transcend and include cells.

A corollary of this pattern is that the strengths of each stage also act as limitations, and Stage 3 follows this principle: Its ambitious individualism is its greatest strength and its biggest limitation. This creates a “developmental plateau,” or a point beyond which it’s difficult to go. To transcend and include, realize that “what got you here won’t get you there”—that is, your current behaviors constitute a particular strategy that works up to a certain point. Beyond that point, you’ll need to adapt by examining what’s limiting you and consciously changing your behaviors. 

From this angle, the Tribal Leadership insights describe a process of realizing that the underlying logic of Stage 3—its values and the strategy they give rise to—serves only certain ends (individual achievement). To grow beyond Stage 3, examine this logic as well as that of Stage 4, and you’ll come to see why Stage 3 falls short, and how to transcend it.

Path #2: Lone Warrior to Team Player

To coach an individual from Stage 3 to Stage 4, the authors recommend several tactics. They include encouraging three-person relationships, emphasizing teamwork, and demonstrating the inherent limitations of Stage 3. As before, leaders should work one-on-one with Stage 3 individuals who’ve started to realize the limitations of Stage 3.

  • Tactic #1: Get candid feedback: Often, the Stage 3 individual is oblivious to the effects of his own behavior. To break this illusion, encourage him to receive specific, candid feedback from his subordinates and peers. 
  • Tactic #2: Encourage three-person relationships: By communicating transparently and forming open, three-person relationships, the authors assert that the Stage 3 individual will break the habit of hoarding information and learn to build connections instead of creating relationship silos.
  • Tactic #3: Assign teamwork: Given a task that requires him to work in a team, a Stage 3 individual can begin to see that everyone is valuable in their own ways, and that teamwork is more effective than individual action. 
  • Tactic #4: Connect them with a Stage 4 mentor: The authors explain that a mentor can help the Stage 3 individual to see how he behaves and help him to adopt healthier Stage 4 behaviors. 
  • Tactic #5: Demonstrate the limitations of Stage 3. Since results matter most to the Stage 3 individual, emphasize that Stage 4 performs more effectively than Stage 3. With the Stage 3 strategy—pushing yourself to the limit—individuals hit a wall that they can’t surpass. Emphasize that effective teamwork takes you beyond that wall, since a strong team can accomplish much more than a single individual. 
Develop a Coaching Toolkit

Throughout Tribal Leadership, the authors offer a variety of coaching tactics, yet they don’t organize them into a coaching framework. To do so, consider that you don’t necessarily need a system—a prescribed set of steps—so much as you can gather a variety of tools and techniques into a coaching toolkit. Then, you can pick the right tool for the job each time you need to coach someone and you can continually add techniques instead of relying on a single approach. 

One such approach you can add is that of Radical Candor, in which author Kim Scott argues that managing relationships is a boss’s main job. She offers two principles:

Care personally: Get to know your employees as people, not just workers, so that you see them as humans rather than “problems” that need solving.

Challenge directly: People often need a firm hand or nudge to keep them moving forward, and this means not shirking tough conversations or feedback sessions. In the end, directness—even when not “nice”—helps people improve.

The key to radical candor is balancing these two principles. Together, they help you give your employees “tough love”—that is, you give them caring support while also maintaining firm and fair expectations for their improvement.

You can also use Scott’s principles alongside those of Tribal Leadership. For instance, you might use caring personally to develop a relationship with a Stage 3 tribe member and help him reflect on the limits of his behavior. Then, you could challenge him directly by asking him to take on what’s tough for him—such as engaging in teamwork or building transparent, communicative relationships.

The authors describe three changes that mark a successful shift to Stage 4:

  • Change #1: A shift to team-focused language. The Stage 3 individual will begin to credit his team with his successes and talk about how his success is only possible because of their hard work.
  • Change #2: Stronger relationships. He’ll recognize the advantages of three-person relationships, and he’ll begin to build a stronger network. Instead of keeping information siloed and secret, he’ll share more openly and build genuine connections.
  • Change #3: Increased effectiveness. As the Stage 3 individual embraces teamwork and the power of networks, he’ll begin to achieve more with less personal effort. He’ll work fewer hours but accomplish more, and he’ll stop saying that he feels overworked and unsupported. According to the authors, he’ll deliver 30% better results.
Getting Your Team to Stage 4 Is Crucial

As the authors imply, it’s crucial to upgrade your tribe to Stage 4 before trying to create a collaborative culture. This is because while collaboration can improve workplace productivity and success, there are right and wrong ways to create a collaborative culture.

Namely, you can’t create such a culture just by making collaboration the new policy. Unless you help people see the value of teamwork first, people may not actually adopt that value or collaborate effectively. Instead, you risk creating a culture where mediocre employees ostracize more ambitious employees:

While everyone is seen as an equal contributor to a team effort, some employees will naturally work harder than others.

If these employees are still at Stage 2 or 3, they might undermine or sabotage the harder worker, seeing her as a threat or outsider.

In turn, this can demotivate your more ambitious employees and cause stress.

Put another way, you can’t create a culture by planning it top-down. Rather, as the authors describe, a leader helps to grow a culture by helping her people to see the value of teamwork and tribal unity. This will create a genuine Stage 4 culture, whereas mandating collaboration won’t work.

Exercise: Plan How to Coach Your Tribe Members

As the authors explain, a tribal leader upgrades her tribe by coaching one tribe member at a time. To practice your understanding of the techniques, plan how you could implement their coaching methods.

  • First, recall the two key coaching opportunities: helping a tribe member upgrade her language and her relationships to the next Stage. When coaching a tribe member at Stage 2, what kind of language would you encourage her to adopt? List a few changes you could help her make—for instance, shifting away from commiserating language.
  • Continuing with the second coaching opportunity, how could you help that Stage 2 individual upgrade her relationships? Think of how to move beyond Stage 2’s tenuous relationships, and consider a few individuals that might support her growth toward Stage 3.
  • Next, consider how you could coach a Stage 3 individual to Stage 4. The authors recommend helping Stage 3 individuals learn the value of teamwork and collaborative relationships. What kind of work could you assign to a Stage 3 individual to help him work toward Stage 4? Briefly reflect.
  • The authors also recommend mentoring, since mentors can model effective Stage 4 behavior. Last, think about who in your organization might make a good mentor for Stage 3 individuals—someone who values open communication and respectful relationships. Briefly, how might you work with this person (if it’s not you) to coach Stage 3 individuals with the Tribal Leadership methodology?
Dealing With Unhealthy Competition in the Workplace

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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