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When Collaborators Turn Into Competitors

How a sense of “pseudo-competition" impacts collaboration.

When working toward individual goals, we often surround ourselves with other people trying to achieve the same things. Collaborating with people pursuing the same outcomes as you—whether that’s at school in a study group, at work with others trying to climb the corporate ladder, or something more personal, like trying to achieve a fitness goal—can be motivating. But have you ever had one of these collaborative relationships turn competitive? If so, it’s human nature.

Toward the beginning of pursuing a shared goal, people often help each other, knowing how hard it is to stick to a workout schedule or face the challenges of studying when spring fever hits.

But, at some point, this collective focus has another impact on participants—individuals pursuing similar goals start comparing themselves to each other. These comparisons can create competitive feelings that can potentially serve to be motivating. However, these competitive feelings may also create a sense of “pseudo-competition.”

As the “competition” increases, people perceive their counterparts as a threat to their goal performance. At that point, the focus shifts from collaboration to earning positional gain against others. That’s when collaborators can turn into backstabbers.

Individual Pursuits Become a Competition

To test the behavioral effect of imagined “pseudo-competition,” I partnered with Stephanie C. Lin , assistant professor at Singapore Management University, and Ying Zhang , a professor of Marketing and Behavioral Science at Peking University. As part of our research, we developed experiments in which subjects did verbal creativity tasks and played various games.

For each task, participants were informed that everyone who achieved a specific score would receive a gift card. The subjects were then paired with partners and given a chance to make moves that would affect their partners’ scores.

Sabotage for Relative Positional Gain

What we found is that pursuing individual goals alongside others can, at times, lead to counterproductive behaviors that can be harmful to both sides. As people get closer to a goal, they become more concerned about the distance between them and their counterparts, rather than their distance to their own goal achievement. This sense of competition can shift people’s focus from improving themselves to defeating the pseudo-opponent, which can lead to sabotaging behaviors and subsequent coasting.

In our experiments, as subjects got closer to achieving their individual goals, they were more likely to take actions that undermined their partner. They also slacked off when they thought they had a better position. Additionally, they tended to pick games in which they expected to do better than their partner, even if those choices meant a lower score for them, too.

These strategies make sense in a real competition. Someone’s relative position against another person determines whether they win. However, when working toward individual goals, there’s no objective prize in being better than a pseudo-opponent. The result is that this sense of pseudo-competition distracts people from achieving their valuable personal goals.

Implications of Individual Incentives

There’s no denying that rewards motivate people to attain goals. We exercise to lose weight, study through the weekend to receive good grades and put in extra hours to earn a bonus at work. In many ways, the fact that other people are striving for the same individual goals adds motivation. Even though the outcome is personal, there is a thrill in outperforming others who are pursuing similar goals.

In contrast to the positive effects of competition, our research suggests that pursuing individual goals with others can at times lead to counterproductive interactions and negative consequences. Although these individuals are often a positive source of support that helps facilitate success, their progress also becomes an easy target for comparison. People’s desire to excel in these comparisons may, in turn, produce negative behaviors, such as sabotage.

What our research indicates is a need to examine the interpersonal consequences of sabotage further and explore how to reduce sabotage in these shared goal pursuits. For example, in a work setting, providing individualized performance statistics might help reduce competitiveness as well as its negative consequences.

There’s a cost to the individual and potentially the group when collaborators become pseudo-opponents. Harming others’ performance is likely to create hurt feelings, anger, and distrust. The negative consequences of sabotage on one’s own goal are clear; what we also can’t ignore are the potential negative interpersonal consequences among collaborators and teammates.

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