The positive power of competitive friendship

This post was orginally published on https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220824-the-positive-power-of-competitive-friendship

Staying friends with a professional rival can be hard – but studies show that keeping competition friendly could be to our advantage.

One of the most touching moments of the 2022 Wimbledon tennis championships came from the women’s semi-final match between Ons Jabeur and Tatjana Maria.

Away from the tournament, the two players are known to be close friends. Jabeur is even known as “Auntie Ons” to Maria’s children, and has spoken of her affection for her rival. “I love Tatjana so much, and her family is really amazing,” Jabeur has said.

The contest to reach the Grand Slam final did nothing to change that, with both players celebrating each other’s achievements following Jabeur’s eventual victory. “On the court, we [both] knew that we will go out and do our best, and after we knew that we were still going to be friends,” Maria said.

Building and maintaining a good friendship with a professional rival can be no easy feat. Even if you start your acquaintance on good terms, envy and jealousy caused by competition can easily sour your interactions, leading to unspoken resentments or outward conflict.

Moreover, whether that competition motivates you to perform to the best of your ability or fills you with self-doubt that hampers your success depends on your own personality and the nature of your relationship with your rival.

Although this is a relatively understudied topic, psychological studies can help us understand how rivalry influences our relationships and our performance, with some tips that could help us all remain on more cordial terms with our competitors, like Jabeur and Maria.

Threat or challenge? 

To a certain extent, conflicting feelings of friendship and competition between close colleagues may be unavoidable. You are simply more likely to be friends with someone who is at the same stage in their career and sharing the same experiences as you – but the sense of similarity that can bring people closer together inevitably raises the potential for social comparison.

This might not be so obvious at the start of the acquaintance. But if someone who started the job at the same time as you starts to progress more quickly, it’s natural to start asking why that might be – and whether, with a bit more effort, you might achieve greater success.

Organisational scientists have long suspected that rivalry can boost motivation, so that both parties perform at their best. It is for this reason that many companies deliberately pit colleagues against each other by ranking their performance and offering rewards to the highest achievers. But the evidence is ambiguous, according to a recent review of the psychological literature, says Christopher To, an assistant professor of human resource management at Rutgers University.

He cites one team of researchers who had asked members of a running club to name particular rivals within their group. On average, the participants reported feeling greater motivation when a rival was present, and this tended to play out in their running times – producing a 25-second advantage over a 5km race, compared to races in which a rival was not present.

Yet other research failed to find consistent benefits of competitive interactions. In some situations, inducing a sense of rivalry with someone – by highlighting a particular competitor, and asking the participant to beat them, for instance – reduced performance. In those experiments, the participants performed better without the social comparison, when they were simply told to try their best.

Christopher To suggests that there is a way to reconcile these conflicting results, however. His theory hinges on participants’ “stress appraisals”: whether they were interpreting the competition as a threat or a challenge. Multiple lines of research have shown that when we appraise a situation as a threat, we tend to feel that we do not have the resources to succeed, and we become fixated on all the bad things that might happen if we fail – such as humiliation and loss of respect. This anxiety tends to reduce both physical and mental performance.

It’s a question of whether the competition psychs you up or psychs you out – Christopher To

When we see a situation as a “challenge”, in contrast, we feel more confident in our preparation and abilities to cope, and rather than thinking about failure we focus on the things to be gained from our efforts. The resulting stress response is energising rather than distracting. “It’s a question of whether the competition psychs you up or psychs you out,” To says.

Many different factors can influence whether you see competition with your rival as a challenge or a threat, including someone’s personal sense of “self-efficacy”. If you feel more confident in your ability to cope with difficulties, you are more likely to see a competition as a challenge. Your history with your rival will also make a difference. If you and your rival are evenly matched and mutually encouraging – like Jabeur and Maria, or the members of that running club – you don’t need to feel embarrassment or humiliation if you fail. In these cases, you might see the competition as a chance for each of you to shine – a mindset that is generally beneficial to performance.

If, however, you are already harbouring a few resentments about the person in question, then you might find it much harder to see the positives. Perhaps your rival is already becoming a bit more patronising and arrogant – even insulting, which makes you feel small. You may start to fear that a further success will only emphasise the growing gap in your status. The resulting sense of threat will harm your performance, and could also escalate the acrimonious feelings that you are already feeling.

In his review of the scientific literature, To found that the negative results typically occurred in situations that would promote the threat mindset, while the benefits for motivation occurred when the participants were able to see the competition as a positive challenge.

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