The Shifting Alliances Of Peers, From Friend To Competition

September 23, 2020

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As you think about your peers at work, are they some of your best friends, always helpful and supportive, or are they your harshest critics, pointing out your mistakes and flaws? While everyone’s situation is different, the answer to this question often is, “It depends.” Context is critical here, and overtime in an organization, relationships can change significantly.

To answer the question, we looked at ratings for individual contributors and managers. The ratings were collected using multi-rater feedback assessments for both groups. The assessed behaviors were exactly the same on 80% of the items but slightly different on 20%. In the graph below, we show the results for 9,787 individual contributors. For individual contributors, the others category tended to be the most favorable rating group, followed by peers.  Managers were the most critical raters.

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For individual contributors, peers tend to rate them more positively. When a person is an individual contributor, peers are their teammates and colleagues. Everyone in the group is generally in the same situation, and there are numerous incentives and encouragement for people to work together and collaborate. There is some competition between peers, but often, that is friendly competition.

Ratings for Managers

Next, we looked at the ratings of managers. In this data set, we had results from over 100,000 managers. When a person is a manager, often, their peers are also managers. While, typically, there is an overarching group goal where every peer team’s results contribute, most peers are primarily concerned about the results of their team and less on the overall results for the group. The graph below shows that the manager and the peer rating were tied to the most negative, direct reports were mostly positive, and others were slightly less positive.

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It is clear from this data that something changes with peer relationships in the move from individual contributor to manager.

What are the possible reasons for peer ratings between managers tending to plummet, when peer ratings for individual contributors are high? There are several alternative explanations.

1.     Perceiving the person as a threat. As people move up through the hierarchy of management, competition increases for a fewer number of positions, as the pyramid narrows.

2.     Managers held to a higher standard. As someone ascends in the management hierarchy, they are expected to perform at a higher level, be more knowledgeable, and possess a more polished skill set. Hence, the lower scores.

3.     Less alignment of goals and more opportunities for competition. An individual contributor’s peers are more apt to be people from within your immediate team, who, by definition, have more aligned goals. Peers at the managerial level are more prone to come from staff functions, other functional areas, or other operating groups. It has often been jokingly said that there is more competition between groups in many large organizations than between the company and its other major competitors. Competition is often heightened because of vying for resources of all kinds. Competition easily devolves into conflict.

4.     Age-related. At younger ages, people often view each other as buddies.

To illustrate this further, recently, we worked with a senior leadership team of a CEO and eight team members. The results are displayed in the graph below. In this case, the manager, direct reports, and others were quite positive in their ratings, but the peers were extremely critical of each other.

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Implications

The data we have gathered shows that the relationships of individual contributors with their peers are quite positive. They are all on the same team and generally work toward the same goal. When a person transitions from individual contributor to manager, the relationships change. Typically, their peers are other managers who have their teams, different priorities, and more competition between team members. In many ways, this dynamic is very understandable, but the peers in the graph above do not appear to be trying to help and support their peers. Instead, they appear to be in bitter competition with each other. In the specific case we were describing, they were looking for a way to get ahead at the other person’s expense. This did considerable damage to the organization, and it negatively impacted the results.

One United Team

We believe there is an important implication of this research. The magic created on a team of individual contributors where they support and work together ought to be the goal of every senior team. When peers want the best for each other, that plays an important role in making the organization more successful.

As a peer, are you looking for the mistakes of your peers or recognizing their strengths? Do you feel like you compete with your peers? Are you looking for ways to help your peers to be successful?

As a manager of people who manage others, do you have favorites? Are you encouraging competition between your team members? Do you reward people when they support their colleagues? Are some of your direct reports winners and others losers?

There are some dynamics about the situation here that are difficult to overcome. The stakes seem higher for managers. The incentives are different, but if you let nature take its course, the results are precisely what this data reveals. Management teams will not be as collaborative as teams of individual contributors. Working hard to encourage others to work together and support each other can provide a great benefit.

-Joe Folkman