I once had a manager who constantly had us keep tabs on our main competitor. She’d arrange special meetings where we would sleuth into who they were hiring and why; where we’d all gather around and gossip about their new team photos. We’d hire agencies to one-up them at every turn: SEO agencies, PR agencies, paid advertising agencies (sometimes these were one and the same), speaker booking agents. The list continued, but I’ve tried to scratch it from my memory.
I sat on the outskirts of the tables during these conversations about the competitor, feeling sick to my stomach most of the time. No, I didn’t feel sick. My stomach felt hollow and hungry.
At the worst point at this job, our manager arranged a team outing to a distillery themed all around kicking our competitor to the curb. In the afternoon in the sunlight, we sat around a table drinking glasses of whiskey and she went around and complimented everyone else on the team and skipped over me. She could see how uncomfortable I was, and she began to ostracize me for not participating. This is how fear-based communities are formed inside companies.
How many companies focus so single-mindedly on their competitors that they completely lose the heart of what they do every day?
How many managers get caught up in “keeping up” that they forget their direct reports and colleagues are people with silly hobbies and messy relationships? These people want to contribute to something so much more than “keeping up” or one up-manship and yet they’re drowning in shallow waters.
Competition is good insofar as it keeps you innovating, but it stifles deep community and creates high school-like toxic dynamics.
To the managers and company leaders out there keeping too close an eye on the competition: Take a good hard look at your own team and at your own heart. How disconnected have you become from why you got here in the first place? And is it healthy to put that on others?
To the employees who are feeling uncomfortable at the competition-bashing table: Take some small steps to get yourself out of that toxic environment. You don’t have to work somewhere that makes you feel ethically uncomfortable. Ask for help from a friend and begin the job search. Ask for guidance from any one of your community builder peers. Ask me.
Just get out.
There are stronger communities and more resilient companies waiting for you on the other side.