Probably not, scientists think.
Looking at the responses of hundreds of workers and students, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis learned that we don’t really know at all who our work rivals are. People’s guesses are usually flat-out wrong. Not to make you paranoid or anything.
“We looked at whether people understood what other people in the workplace thought of them,” said Hillary Anger Elfenbein, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the study’s authors, to the university. “You tend to know who likes you. But, for negative feelings, including competitiveness, people had no clue.”
Two different studies—one of car salespeople at a Midwest dealership and one of students working in groups, both asking the participants to describe relationships with their peers—showed that these folks were overwhelmingly oblivious to who their competition really was. Their answers canceled each other out.
But why don’t we know who’s trying to beat us at our own game? It’s because we’re likely getting mixed signals on that front, Elfenbein said. While some people wear their emotions on their sleeves, others are very good at hiding their true intentions.
“Some people show their competitiveness, some people you can tell have it out for you, but others have it out for you and act like they’re your close friend,” she said. “Those two effects wash out, and people on average have zero idea about who feels competitively toward them.”
We may hide feelings of competitiveness in an effort to be polite at work. After all, it’s not exactly smiled upon to be rude to your coworkers. Exposing your true feelings could land you into trouble. Or maybe you’re trying to “fake it ’til you make it” —being polite to squash down unwanted feelings of jealousy or competitiveness.
We also mask feelings of competitiveness out of fear of reciprocity. We don’t want to expose that we’re feeling competitive only to have that competitiveness dished back at us from the other person. Keeping the other person in the dark works to our advantage if we’re trying to do better than they are.
“For liking, reciprocation is a good thing,” Elfenbein said. “But to get the benefits of competition, such as promotions or perks, you don’t need it to be reciprocated. And when you don’t get that feeling back, it’s hard to gauge who’s truly competing against you.”
So what can you do to figure out the underlying dynamics at your workplace? Be on the lookout for sincere actions, rather than words.
“You need to pay more attention to what people do rather than what they say,” Elfenbein said. “When people are too polite to say something to your face, you need a good, strong network that will let you know what other people really think.”
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to do the best work you can and focus on your own success, rather than getting wrapped up in what others are doing. Even in a workplace where competition is encouraged, like a car dealership, that’s a safe technique for getting ahead.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.