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When is Healthy Competition Unhealthy? by Susan DiMickele

Most workplaces thrive on competition. Especially–especially–law firms. I happen to know.

After sixteen years of working at one of the largest and most competitive law firms on the planet, I’ve come to accept the inevitable: my work is often a zero sum game.

Someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Welcome to the profession.

This reality hit me hard last week after a successful jury trial. I extended my hand to the losing party, but he pulled away with anger and harsh words. (His wife also gave me a big scowl.) What was I expecting, a hug? After all, the goal in court is to win, not to make nice.

Court isn’t the only place lawyers compete. We compete for clients. We compete for talent. We compete with other lawyers. We compete on behalf of our clients. So why should internal competition be any different?

In my early years of practice, I often wondered, Why can’t my workplace be more egalitarian? It’s competitive enough outside these walls, why do we have to compete with each other?

Then, human nature kicks in. I work harder than he does! So why do we get paid the same? She’s out of the office again? I’ve never seen anyone find more excuses to miss work. I’m the one who’s keeping this client happy. Shouldn’t I get the revenue credit?

Maybe things don’t appear even because they’re not. I guess that means I’m keeping score. Is that such a bad thing? Even the research suggests that workplace competition encourages productivity and innovation. Shouldn’t we just accept survival of the fittest?

Like it or not, workplace competition is here to stay.

But wait a minute - there are always two sides to the story. As I tell the jury, never make up your mind until you hear all the facts. Competition has its limits. In fact, other studies confirm that it promotes individualism and stifles teamwork. Unhealthy workplace competition – the kind that puts individual glory over the greater good – has a deadly effect on trust and collaboration.

To add another layer to the debate, I wonder what God thinks about workplace competition? I may be called to compete, but I’m also called to be an instrument of grace.

And grace isn’t a zero sum game.