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Is cut-throat competition at work worth the hustle?

It may sound like a small price to pay to be part of a dream workplace, but the win-at-all-costs mentality in the office can be deeply toxic

When employees help each other to do better, it is healthy competition, and that is what is needed. Excessively competitive workspaces are just bad news at every level, say experts
When employees help each other to do better, it is healthy competition, and that is what is needed. Excessively competitive workspaces are just bad news at every level, say experts (iStock )

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Can a win-at-all-costs mentality force workers to leave their job? Sameer Dabade would agree. Just before the pandemic, the 29-year-old IT engineer joined what he thought would be his dream job and moved to Bengaluru from Nashik.

“During my month-long initiation programme, I would be constantly told by the trainers how my present office was the best place to work in, resulting in the best work being put forth by the best team, the best performance by each team member that would lead to the maximum profit… ,” he recalls. “We were constantly told how we had to be better than the next person. I didn’t realise it then, but this kind of work culture messed up my work-life balance. I would pull all-nighters, catching a few winks at my desk in between work commitments.”

Also read: How to manage the changing dynamic of workplace stress

Dabade soon realised the expectation to thrive in a high-pressure work environment was affecting his mental and physical health—he wasn’t eating proper meals, was always stressed, no social life. He thought it would get better and he needed the steady flow of income. But it never got better.

What initially sounded like a small price to pay to be part of his dream workplace turned out to be deeply toxic. Those two years “were a harrowing time. While almost everyone in my office was fighting similar battles, they were not willing to quit what they thought was a lucrative position,” confesses Dabade, who’s presently working in a start-up. It is a smaller place, but he has no complaints so far. “At least there is camaraderie in the office instead of people trying to push the other down all the time.”

Mohit Aggarwal, 33, had a similar experience while working at a bank in Mumbai. “Work pressure was going through the roof. To top it all, there would always be this hush-hush thing in the office like some secret was in the offing that would lead to job cuts,” he says, adding how the senior managers would encourage the feeling of expecting the worst as a means to drive their subordinates to put in more hours.

“We were constantly on our toes. There was always this fear of ‘what if’,” he recalls.

Then there was the office rivalry.

Both Aggarwal and Dabade realised that acing the cut-throat competition was the only way forward. People vied for the highest-paying clients to achieve monthly targets, which were often always impossible. Employees were made to fight hard to stay ahead in the game. The manager would add to the toxic atmosphere by repeatedly emphasising how the bottom 15% of performers would not be with the company for long. “It was hell,” recalls Aggarwal. After four years of being part of the rat race, he quit to become a financial consultant.

“Working independently has its share of drawbacks, but it definitely is better than being in a job that drains you mentally and physically. After I quit, I heard two others also left,” he says.

The dark side

A popular belief in today’s workplace hustle culture is: to stay ahead, you have to be ruthless. It’s a dog-eat-dog world that encourages the “I-work-longer-hours-than-you” mantra, something that became more evident during the pandemic when there were massive job and pay cuts across sectors and industries.

Competition can be healthy too, but there is a fine line between healthy and toxic, explains the HR manager of a leading Gurugram-based IT firm, who wishes to remain anonymous. “There is competition in the professional life at every level. It’s not a new thing, but after covid and hybrid work culture, there’s much more competition; people now want to move ahead in the smallest time possible,” says the manager, who has been in the field for close to two decades. “This is giving rise to a toxic work environment and ultimately affecting employee productivity and also adversely affecting the company.”

What’s needed, he suggests, is more push for healthy teamwork.” “It’s simple actually,” he explains. “When employees help each other to do better, it is healthy competition, and that is what is needed. Excessively competitive workspaces are just bad news at every level.”

There’s ample research to show that a high-stress, cutthroat culture is bad for productivity. According to a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

Working in such an environment can make you feel unempathetic, adds Tanvi Sardesai, clinical psychologist at Masina Hospital in Mumbai.

“It can feel forced and fake and can be a very invalidating experience. The need to constantly be okay can invalidate all our other emotions. Negative emotions are thus viewed as inherently bad. When we judge ourselves for our primary emotions of sadness and loneliness, it can lead to secondary emotions such as shame,” she says. “It can also make one feel guilty for experiencing the emotions they are feeling. They may feel guilty for not feeling grateful or for feeling upset. It can hamper growth.”

The work pressure

A hypercompetitive work environment could result in continuous undermining from management and colleagues. “Rivalries can be healthy too, provided one is willing to help the other and motivate them to do better. If you instead spend your days plotting your team member’s downfall so that you can get to the coveted position, it is ultimately not going to help either you or the company,” says the HR manager. “Toxicity breeds more toxicity. If companies push too hard to make cut-throat competition culture the corporate culture, it often results in employee exodus. People who can afford to leave the company, will look for better options and leave. Unfortunately, those who can’t leave the job for financial or personal reasons will hold on to it, but the toxicity will result in poor employee performance,” he says. “In a toxic work culture, everyone is a loser.”

In a large company, there are various employees, which by definition, means that you have to do better than your colleagues if you want to “make it”. This need to “make it” often translates into an atmosphere that does more harm than one can imagine. The organisation starts to over-value competition, with an aim to achieve maximum profit.

As mentioned earlier, cut-throat competition can be a powerful driver of employee dissatisfaction. There are, however, simple ways to tackle this kind of atmosphere in the office.

Venkatesh Babu, consultant psychiatrist, Fortis Hospitals, Bengaluru, says, “It might sound difficult to do, but one should acknowledge their own emotions and experiences and try to learn how to let go of those emotions. Try to talk to others, express and if required seek help, he recommends. “What may seem like a normal competitive attitude of the moment may soon skyrocket into toxic cut-throat competition before you even realise it. Know where to draw the line.”

Cut-throat culture starts from the top-down, says Sardesai, who often sees patients stressed and worried because of overcompetitive work environment. If the management of a company believes in winning by all means, then it becomes the corporate culture. Age, gender and seniority play their part, she says. “This is nothing but an aggressive, macho work environment. Everyone is in search of the alpha male.”

Babu adds: “With covid and hybrid work, the cut-throat culture is partly in hibernation, but that’s only in some offices. It is not going away anytime soon. Such workplace atmosphere don’t change unless there is a CEO-led culture change initiative. Even then, it is a slow process and can take years. Not many people have the time for that.”

Change is indeed hard to come by. This is the reason people like Aggarwal and Dabade decided to quit and take things slow. “I didn’t want to lose my peace of mind to the age-old rat race,” says Dabade. “Success is important, but not at the cost of pushing others down the snake pit.”

Also read: Is your workplace truly inclusive?

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