How to Deal With a Ruthlessly Competitive Boss

Americans love to compete.

Whether on turf, on television, in the classroom, or in the boardroom, we’re all about outwitting, outfoxing, and outdoing our competitors.

Well listen, it’s fun. It’s fun to match brain and brawn against a peer all the while stretching our own capabilities and prowess, and it’s fun to engage others in a common goal. (I may want to win, and you may want to win, but we both want the same thing — to win.)

However, what’s completely UN-fun is when your ruthlessly competitive boss drags you into a battle you have no interest in waging.

In my experience, there are four kinds of inappropriately competitive bosses:

  • The Overly Ambitious Boss;
  • The Insecure Boss;
  • The Stupid Boss; and,
  • The Character Disturbed Boss.

God help me, I’ve had them all.

And the winner is …

The Overly Ambitious Boss: I don’t have anything against ambitions. I understand ambition. I want stuff, too.

But overly ambitious bosses are tiresome. They’re never satisfied and they’re always scheming. Working with them is unsettling because you can never gain their loyalty no matter how well you perform. They’ll throw your ass under the bus in two seconds to meet a goal, whether they’re trying to look good to the higher-ups or humiliating you because your talents outshine theirs.

Overly ambitious bosses are also skilled at manufacturing conflict. (“I want MY boss to know what a great manager I am, so if Candace so much as looks at me wrong, she’ll find out fast, quick, and in a hurry who’s in charge!”)

The insecure boss: Anyone can fall prey to a case of imposter syndrome every now and again, but the insecure boss takes it to another level. This boss’ lack of confidence means no one is safe.

The insecure boss can only feel better when someone else is compromised, so this boss does things to compromise the team. He or she withholds information, gives vague and incomplete directions, or stops communicating altogether. Appearing confident and in control is supremely important to this individual, and if causing you to feel like poop is the price to pay — well, they’re so dang generous they’re willing to pay it.

The stupid boss: There are two kinds of stupid—stupid by birth and stupid by choice. I happen to believe intellect is a gift, and since we don’t earn it, we can’t brag on it. Still, the fact remains that some bosses aren’t as smart as some others.

Unfortunately, dumb bosses (especially those who are willfully so) tend to be threatened when their employees use their brains. And so out comes the competitive boss’ tools of the trade: hostility, lies, obfuscation, and condescension.

The character disturbed boss: Some of these folks are just plain evil. They’ve got no moral compass, and anything goes. “If I want it, I should have it. If you can’t stop me from taking it, I deserve it.”

For character disturbed bosses, fighting is a way of life. Everything’s a competition, because if someone else “wins,” they lose — and they refuse to lose. SMH.

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A little healthy competition never hurt anyone

Like any good Gen X’er, I’m a total television junkie, and one of my favorite shows is Suits.

The two principal characters, veteran hotshot attorney Harvey Specter and his protégé Mike Ross, are competitive, but there’s respect both ways, and it works. In fact, it’s kind of sweet.

The problem with ruthlessly competitive bosses in the real world, however, is there IS no respect. To this kind of competitive boss:

  1. The idea of complementary skills is anathema. They’re “up here,” and you’re “down there.” And I’m sorry, but I find this particularly laughable when I’m dealing with young, competitive bosses. Come on; I’ve got darn near 3o years of experience, and you’ve got 10. If I’m willing to concede that you can teach me something (and I am), you should certainly be willing to concede that I can teach you something.
  2. You are a means to their end. If they can’t use you (i.e., control or manipulate you), they don’t need you.
  3. Nothing matters but their victory. This single-mindedness is what makes competitive bosses so dangerous. They don’t give a fig about standards or performance. They will drive or force out high performers with a mind of their own and lump heaps of goodies on those who do what they say without comment, regardless of how poorly they perform.

Final words

If you find yourself inappropriately competing with a staff member, take a step back and examine the situation. Are you reacting to your employee’s competitive stance toward YOU, or are you a bit more concerned with your ego than your responsibility to develop others?

We’re all human and sometimes our emotions get the better of us, but don’t let this get out of hand. You’re failing at the job if you do.

If you HAVE a competitive boss, you’d also benefit from taking self-inventory. Try and get at the heart of the dynamic and determine whether your boss is indeed ruthlessly competitive or more amenable to change.

If you can see other, more positive traits in your boss, it may be worth it to consciously adjust your own behavior so that he or she feels less threatened and less insecure. Ask for his or her opinion more often. Don’t fight losing battles. Agree where you can. And always question your own reactions.

Ask yourself, “If (insert name of boss you admire and respect) asked me to do this same thing, how would I feel?” Your answer will make it plain whether you’re reacting to your competitive boss’ style or substance and where you might need you own attitude tune up.

By nature, the workplace is a competitive arena, but competition doesn’t have to be unhealthy or an impediment to high performance. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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