Why Workers Don't Always Know Their Rivals

Study recommends creating climates of friendly competition.

DO PEOPLE KNOW WHO their biggest competitors are at work? Probably not, say three organizational behavior researchers. While most people can judge whether others view them favorably, they might be less adept at identifying their biggest rivals.

In a recent paper, Noah Eisenkraft of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Hillary Anger Elfenbein of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Shirli Kopelman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor examined the concept of “dyadic meta-accuracy,” defined as how people determine whether or not others like them.

car dealership—the researchers chose this group because car salespeople must compete with each other for commissions. The salespeople completed questionnaires that asked them to rate, on a nine-point scale, how much they liked each of their colleagues and how much they viewed each colleague as a rival. The participants also indicated what they thought each of their colleagues thought about them. When the researchers compared the questionnaires, they found that the salespeople were much more accurate at knowing who liked them than they were at knowing who viewed them as rivals.

In a second experiment, 263 college students in a class on corporate strategy and organizational behavior were assigned to one of 56 teams to work on a three-month project. Their grades for the project were based entirely on group performance. After ten weeks, the students completed questionnaires similar to those completed by the salespeople at the dealership. Once again, participants exhibited a faulty perception of who their rivals were on their teams.

The research team believes this area is worthy of further inquiry, primarily because how well people identify their rivals can significantly impact their interactions with others in the workplace. But their ability to identify rivals can be hindered by the fact that those who are their biggest competitors will tend to hide that fact to be polite. Not only that, unlike friendship, competition requires no reciprocation, giving people one less clue about who their rivals are.

How can companies use these findings? By promoting friendly competition, says Elfenbein. “At the car dealership, everybody knows they are competing against each other,” she says. “But if you create a climate where there are boundaries you don’t cross, you can make space for mutual healthy competition to be rewarded.”

“We Know Who Likes Us, but Not Who Competes Against Us: Dyadic Meta-Accuracy Among Work Colleagues” was published online January 12 in Psychological Science.