Professional rivalries often seem like the ultimate waste of time. Why is she spending so much time worrying about what someone else is doing? Why doesn't she focus on her own business? Doesn't she have anything better to do? It's true that obsessing about a competitor isn't the healthiest long-term activity. But I've also come to believe you can glean important lessons from the very act of rivalry — if you use it as an opportunity for growth, rather than just an opportunity to crush your enemies.
Image via Dmitry Shironosov (Shutterstock)
Where are you weak?
Often, rivalry is a form of envy: your competitor has a trait or skill you (sometimes grudgingly) admire. That was the case when a friend — let's call her Sara — reached out to me, asking if I was connected with a particular colleague on Facebook. "If so," Sara wrote, "I want to discuss his social media presence with you." It turned out Sara was livid about this guy's frequent, self-promoting Facebook posts and wanted validation that our colleague was grossly misusing the network and ruining his personal brand.
Unfortunately — to Sara's astonishment — I hadn't really noticed. I casually followed his exploits; only Sara was obsessed enough to be bothered. She was a shy, introverted entrepreneur who had long hesitated about promoting herself. Our colleague's blatant self-promotion raised the uncomfortable specter Sara might have to start doing it, too. She felt much better after realising it was OK to tackle social media in her own way, that didn't feel phony or self-aggrandising.
What do you value most?
For years, I'd known a woman whom I was quite sure had fabricated her credentials. She cited ties to world-famous universities and institutions, but grew vague and evasive when asked about them. It was mildly annoying to see her at conferences, but my indignation grew to a fever pitch when she landed a book deal with a major publisher and began winning media attention.
In an inspired move, I wrote to my friend Michael, who worked at one of the august institutions she claimed to be affiliated with, in hopes he might devise a clever way to "out" her. Instead, he wrote back with a question: "Why does she irk you?" I wrote back, defensive: It's about justice! Fairness! Truth! But Michael was right. One's rivals often poke at a tender spot.
I worked hard for my degrees and credentials, never benefiting from family connections or other shortcuts. And perhaps, it seems, I've made a religion out of it, because the thought that someone could invent their resume and get away with it makes me apoplectic. Knowing that bias helps me keep a better perspective (for instance, I may be liable to overvalue a job candidate who "made their own way in the world").
Are you thinking big enough?
At their worst, professional rivalries cause a form of myopia; you're inventing products or launching initiatives to beat the competition, not to benefit the customer. That's rarely the recipe for breakthrough innovation, as you focus on one-upsmanship and incremental improvements. (Indeed, there's speculation following Apple's patent infringement victory against Samsung that smartphone makers may be forced into a new era of design creativity, now that the negative legal consequences of "following the leader" are so clear.) But occasionally, stalking a rival can unlock breakthrough possibilities for growth (think of the impact Roger Bannister shattering the four-minute mile had on his competitors). How can you increase your impact or make a new contribution in your field?
Professional rivalries can be a powerful vehicle for self-discovery — if you step back and think analytically about them. Learning where you're weak, what values you cherish, and how to think big are important advantages. But even if you struggle to rise to that level of self-reflection when it comes to your rival, the blood-boiling effects of a competitor can sometimes be salubrious: if it kills me, I'm going to make sure my book outsells that of my veracity-challenged rival.
How have professional rivalries inspired or motivated you?
What You Can Learn From Your Professional Rivals [Harvard Business Review]
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. She is the author of the forthcoming Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (HBR Press 2013). Follow her on Twitter @dorieclark.