Competition and rewarding success increase productivity, boosting employee performance. But could your organization be promoting negative, cutthroat behavior that actually repels your most talented employees?
It’s time to make staffing cuts. Those who meet a specific sales quota are considered for raises or promotions, while those who lag behind their peers face demotion or termination. Only the top performers get to stay, but, for others, there’s blood in the water. The race begins.
Some leaders may think that stiff workplace competition and a harsh, austere culture would encourage the cream to rise to the top, while poor performers naturally get filtered out. In reality, the opposite may be true if this competition goes too far. Employees who sabotage, bully, and one-up each other to earn supervisors’ approval create a toxic workplace, and such a cutthroat work atmosphere may hurt your organization in the long run.
Cutthroat behavior among employees is often a consequence of poor leadership. When your team observes that you’re willing to profit or succeed by any means necessary, your employees will strap on their boxing gloves to match you. The resulting toxic atmosphere plagues organizations in multiple industries, including retail, entertainment, hospitality, and real estate.
The Risks of Cutthroat Behavior
What’s so wrong with a tough workplace? Why not encourage the tight-ship mentality associated with law school students and new physicians in residency—the sort of rigorous environment where your team is not only eager to please but also afraid to slack off?
An MIT Sloan study found that toxic, unethical workplaces are not only ineffective but also the number-one reason people cite for leaving their jobs—even when they’re passionate about their careers. As Mark C. Perna, a risk-management expert and contributing author for Forbes, states, “To the ‘like it or lump it’ workplace philosophy of the past, workers are adding a new option: leave it. In a historically tight labor market, employees have more choices than ever before—and don’t have to settle if their current work environment is unpleasant, dangerous, or unethical.” These complaints could include workplaces that encourage toxic competitiveness to get ahead.
Worse, the underlying desensitization in cutthroat workplaces may also lead to racial, gender, and other forms of targeted harassment. Employees may even find themselves incapable of or discouraged to raise complaints of discrimination. In an environment where only strength is rewarded, grievances may register as weakness.
As a result, cutthroat environments may homogenize, as they can become unwelcome to diversity, which hurts leadership in the long run. It’s hard to compile the best talent when segments of the population feel glued to the floor. To preserve talent and promote longevity, business leaders should make it a priority to identify cutthroat practices and put a stop to overall toxic workplace culture.
Symptoms of Cutthroat Culture
Look out for the top symptoms of toxicity in the workplace, like fawning behavior. Employees eager to please may take strides to earn your favor, including disingenuous flattery. Other symptoms of cutthroat behavior include pressure to work extremely long hours, accusations among salespeople of “stealing” clients, and coworkers openly bullying one another.
You should also be aware of toxic workplace politics, which can reward alliances rather than excellent job performance. These include employees separating into insular cliques, sabotage, and one-upmanship in meetings: “Great job, Liz. I’m glad you followed my advice, and it helped you sign a new client.”
Where Organizations Go Wrong
To address cutthroat workplace culture, you may first have to put your own leadership behavior under the microscope. Do you openly make some employees the butt of jokes? This may seem like good fun when you do it, but employees may mimic your behavior and harass coworkers to earn your approval (and avoid being caught in your crosshairs).
Do you blur the lines between work and life? Promoting work/life balance doesn’t hurt your team’s commitment; rather, it ensures that they approach each workday refreshed and with a more positive attitude. A healthy work/life balance can also prevent cutthroat culture, which is often born out of a company-wide perception that your work is your life and employees should achieve by any means necessary.
What to Do About Cutthroat Workplace Culture
The secret lies in trust. While your employees and colleagues should inherently compete with one another, they should also trust each other. Across various industries, trust fosters success. And trust encourages longevity. The MIT Sloan study on the Great Resignation also found that a toxic culture is 10.4 times more influential than compensation concerning attrition. While this figure is associated with a variety of toxic environments, cutthroat culture is a significant contributing factor, and MIT Sloan listed this as one of the top five complaints employees raise when reviewing their workplaces.
Balancing competition with community in your workplace can therefore save your best talent. It’s vital to job satisfaction that your employees feel supported and encouraged.
All this being said, competition is good for business. There are few motivations to excel as powerful as rewarding great performance. Nearly all businesses have a hierarchy structure in place (even when they actively try to resist it), and with each level of promotion, the pool only gets smaller. With room for fewer people at the top, rewarding the best talent is only profitable for managers and owners alike.
To prevent cutthroat behavior, try to create productive competition. How? Focus on rewarding top performers, not punishing lower performers who still meet quotas. Encourage those who need help, and reprimand poor workplace performance privately—don’t make an example of them in front of their peers. A culture of shame motivates workers to blame their peers for errors or take credit for coworkers’ accomplishments. Make it clear as day what constitutes unethical behavior, and ensure that this behavior will not be rewarded but punished.
Also, make positive collaboration a fixture of your organization. Assign tasks to teams when possible, and even shuffle groups around from time to time. Don’t underestimate active team-building activities, either. Team building encourages communication, builds trust among coworkers, and fosters an environment where employees excel because they enjoy their work. This motivates your team to excel, too, and put down roots in your organization.
While leaders are responsible for correcting negative culture, keep your expectations realistic. As Charlie Sull of CultureX told BBC, “[Companies] don’t change much unless they’re pushed very hard, or there’s a sudden shock like a major CEO-led culture change initiative. Even if the company wants to change, and knows how to, it’s a generally slow process that can take years in large organizations.” Lead the charge in improving workplace culture, and your team will follow.
Even if you manage only a small portion of a large organization, you may soon find that your efforts foster success—and your leadership takes notice. This could be your opportunity to earn recognition of your own by ethical means.
Take Action: Write down three words that describe your company culture. If any of these words could be associated with a cutthroat workplace, develop a clear list of goals to replace those words with positive ones.