How to Compete with Your Frenemies Close

How competitive are you? Some of us work collaboratively with our colleagues, even if we’re vying for our share of the same bonus pool. Others one-up each another at meetings, keep valuable information to themselves, and jockey – with pointy elbows – to curry more favor with the boss or to seal the biggest deal.

If you’re an introvert, what does that add to the mix? You may be just as competitive as your extrovert* colleagues. However, you prefer spending more of your time immersed in solo activities like reading, researching, listening, strategizing in your head, and crafting language for killer proposals. Also, if you have your druthers, you’ll focus on one task at a time. You can still ace the negotiation, cinch the deal, and command the big bucks. However, you need more time offline to gather and process your thoughts.

“The ability to cooperate, to make individuals subordinate their strong sense of self-interest to the needs of the group, lies at the root of human achievement,” according to a recent story in the New York Times. By comparing and contrasting human behavior to that of primates, the story offers explanations for our cooperation and collaboration with one another. Kim Hill, Ph.D., a social anthropologist quoted in the story, sums it up: “We have rockets because 10,000 individuals cooperate in producing the information.”

Kathryn Mayer, a leadership development consultant and author of the book Collaborative Competition(TM), contends that competition is an opportunity – a chance to learn, evolve, and excel. Instead of viewing competition as a cutthroat means to squashing your opponent, she is all about strategic win-win collaborations that can actually be enjoyable.

Mayer draws from her experience as a competitive amateur tennis player as well as leadership roles she’s held at Goldman Sachs, Deloitte, and Citigroup’s Investment Bank. In Collaborative Competition, Mayer interviews 40 women who have risen to the top of fields as diverse as medicine, politics, professional sports, and investment banking. Many of Mayer’s clients are men as well as women in senior corporate leadership positions.

“For men the goal of competition is clear: winning,” she says. “In contrast, research shows that women have a tendency to strive for perfection. Women tend to view perfection as an identity, which limits their ability to perform as effective competitors, take on leadership roles and most importantly enjoy life and its challenges.” Some introverts also suffer from the perils of perfectionism. For a discussion about that, check out my story, “Introverts: Manage Your Perfectionism and Reduce Your Agita!”

Mayer shares one of her favorite stories of an introvert who practices collaborative competition: “Alicia, a mayor of a mid-size city, gets results through aligning interests. She has gotten many controversial issues accepted by listening to people, learning their needs, and looking for opportunities to form alliances.” Mayer adds that Alicia loves the competitive aspect of politics, but credits her ability to collaborate for her success. In fact, Mayer says that Alicia is uncomfortable using the word “I” – she constantly credits others.

In drawing parallels between competition in tennis and business throughout her book, Mayer quotes tennis great Pete Sampras as saying that his competitor Andre Agassi made him a better player by pushing him to heighten his game. Mayer offers the following tips to help you heighten your game – and even enjoy the process:

  1. Adopt a self-challenger mindset. “Being a collaborative competitor is a mindset and muscle to develop – a new habit to form,” says Mayer. She urges you to continually seek out challenges and learning opportunities. The women who amazed Mayer most during her interviews for her book were the fundraisers. “Elaine, who leads a small nonprofit, thrives on beating the system,” says Mayer. “Whenever she faces problems in getting money from the school system to fund her after-school program for children, Elaine views the situation as a more than a challenge – she sees it as a fun opportunity to tackle. As tennis legend Billie Jean King used to say, ‘pressure is a privilege.'”
  2. Experiment with taking small, smart risks. Mayer advises you to start small. “Engage in activities you won’t worry about losing at and that won’t make you look foolish,” she says. “You might choose a sport, art, or hobby that looks enjoyable or a contest that might be fun to enter. Select an activity in which you will experience a small win.” If you’re an introvert, the activity you choose is more likely to be a quiet one like taking an online course or submitting an op-ed for publication. It doesn’t have to be joining the debate team!
  3. Spend five minutes a day expanding your network. Mayer recommends doing this in a way that plays to your strengths. If you’re an introvert, she says, “It could be sending a friendly e-mail, a LinkedIn invitation, or tweeting on Twitter.” She adds that you could also drop by someone’s office or make a phone call (not for every introvert!).
  4. Seek out feedback. “The easier you make it for others to give you feedback and the less defensive you are, the more likely you are to get honest feedback and maintain high performance and results,” says Mayer. “The people who are very successful in competitive industries make it easy for others to give them feedback.” Examples of the strategic advantage of feedback abound in tennis, according to Mayer: “By receiving feedback on why they miss their serve, players can make changes and ultimately win a match.” She recommends jumpstarting your feedback habit by asking someone you trust to give you feedback on small, everyday issues such as a memo you wrote. This can work well for you as an introvert because it can entail a one-on-one conversation or even a written exchange.
  5. Surround yourself with mentors. “The latest research says you need a group of mentors with diverse skills,” says Mayer. “There are two types of mentors: friendly competitors and challengers,” she adds. “Reach out to colleagues you like on different levels from you and build friendly competitor relationships with them. Exchange feedback and coaching with them, and encourage one another to take smart risks.” How do you stay on top of the latest news in a constantly changing business landscape? “I’m indebted to friends who read different things from what I read,” says Mayer. Introverts who love to read can benefit from sending and receiving links to articles, research, book reviews, and notices about events of interest.
  6. Treat adversaries as collaborative competitors. “Annoying people can be helpful to you. Ask an adversary to coffee or lunch,” advises Mayer. In her book she offers examples of how these kinds of stretch opportunities can benefit you. What do you do if an adversary is threatened by your gifts or accomplishments? “If you get good enough, someone will be threatened by you,” she says. “Demonstrate curiosity and slight deference and/or ask the person for advice or for a favor that does not put either of you in a vulnerable position,” says Mayer. The one-on-one dynamic plays well to introverts, who value getting to know one person at a time-concentrating on the conversation, listening attentively, and commenting only when they have something to add.

*Also spelled “extravert” by Carl Jung and the communities of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and other personality assessments such as the Five Factor Model.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Ancowitz

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