Workplace Competition: Why We Compete at Work

A photo of Robert Hogan, PhD, founder and president of Hogan Assessments, next to a quote of his about workplace competition that reads, 'The fundamental dynamic of organizational life is the individual search for power.'

Workplace competition is universal. The workplaces themselves aren’t the cause of why we compete at work, though. People are the common factor in all work environments everywhere. Something fundamental exists in human nature that motivates us to compete.

Competition in the workplace can produce outcomes that are positive, negative, or a complex mixture. The desire to get ahead of others can carry us to unparalleled heights of innovation, productivity, and success. Yet it can destroy the reputations of individuals, teams, and organizations. And it can do both simultaneously.

Robert Hogan, PhD, founder and president of Hogan Assessments, says that people have always competed for power, defined as status and the control of resources. Today, much of that competition takes place not in nomadic groups seeking subsistence but in the professional context of businesses and organizations. “The fundamental dynamic of organizational life is the individual search for power,” Dr. Hogan said. Understanding why we compete at work can help us direct our innate drive to succeed.

Read on to discover why we compete, the types of workplace competition, and what makes a competitive personality.

Why People Compete

To understand workplace competition, we need to look far backward in human history. Evolutionary theory can help explain why people compete. “The bottom line in evolutionary theory is something called fitness. Fitness is the number of progeny you leave behind,” Dr. Hogan said. Number of offspring is directly correlated to status and resources—that is, power. Our need for power, then, is associated with our very survival. Competition is created by people seeking to gain part of a limited supply of status and resources.

Competition is just one of three fundamental human motivations. According to socioanalytic theory, which is a perspective on psychology that stems from evolutionary theory, humans are group-living beings with behavior guided by three universal motives.1 Humans are motivated by (1) getting ahead, (2) getting along, and (3) finding meaning. These universal motives also go by the names of competition, cooperation, and worldview.

The definition of getting ahead is competition for power. Humans want the highest status and the control of the most resources. In most societies, power looks different now than it did hundreds of generations ago. Drive for status has shifted from achieving physical dominance over others to advancing in social class and interpersonal influence. Drive for control of resources has shifted from obtaining the largest portion of food for our offspring to identifying ways to manage our immediate environmental comforts. While the nature of our work and the outcomes of our competition have changed over time, they are still shaped by the same universal motives.2

Types of Workplace Competition

Workplace competition can be quite complicated. Socioanalytic theory tells us that competition occurs on individual, team, and organizational levels. Individuals compete within groups for power, and groups compete with other groups for survival. (Historically, group survival meant life or death due to warfare. In a business context today, survival typically refers to continued operations, as opposed to bankruptcy or closure.) Individual differences determine the type and degree of power we compete for and the strategies we use to seek it. Those who recognize why people compete at work can become more effective at managing their own performance and influencing others. Organizational success and survival depend on employees who harness their competitive drive for the benefit of the organization.

Internal Competition

Internal competition means competition between members of the same group. Getting ahead within a group can be productive or obstructive, depending on many factors that affect the outcome of the competition.

To put this into context, suppose a pharmaceutical company’s director of business development wants to encourage a regional team of business development representatives (BDRs) to drive for results. The leader might encourage the BDRs to compete to earn rewards for securing new opportunities for the company. Ultimately, team competitions like this can encourage initiative, incentivize creative thinking, and increase productivity.

Poor management of the team’s competitive culture could compromise productivity, however. If interpersonal problems develop among team members, the team’s competition could actually hinder their performance in comparison to other regional teams—including those employed by other pharmaceutical companies.

External Competition

External competition means competition between two or more different groups. Like internal competition, external competition can have a variety of outcomes. Our hypothetical pharmaceutical company’s regional business development team might compete for distinction with their colleagues on other regional teams. Competition between two teams at the same company could produce innovation in the form of higher quality products and services as the teams pursue excellence. It might also cause excessive tolerance of risk in the push to win, placing too much focus on short-term gains.

External competition can also take the form of organizations competing for markets, revenue, or brand reputation. A leader’s search for power often directs the success or failure of the entire group. Competition on the organizational level recalls Dr. Hogan’s thesis about the individual search for power driving organizational life. “Competition between groups is fierce,” he observed. “The most important problem in human affairs is who can put together an effective group and maintain their group’s viability over time.”

Not everyone wants the same form of power, however. And not everyone attempts to get ahead in the same way. The extent to which we seek power lies in the personality characteristic of ambition.

The Characteristics of a Competitive Personality

Ambition is a personality characteristic measured with the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI). The HPI assesses the bright side of personality, or the everyday strengths that influence how we present ourselves at our best. Ambition refers to our energy and drive. It measures the degree to which someone seems socially self-confident, leaderlike, competitive, and energetic.

Similar to competition itself, the HPI Ambition scale is intrinsically neither good nor bad. Someone with a low score on the Ambition scale might prefer to belong on a team or lead from behind—effective in many circumstances. Someone with a high score on the Ambition scale might become overfocused on their own advancement or achieving results—ineffective in many circumstances.

Many people, even psychologists, prefer to minimize the fact of ambition. In cultures that value humility or group consensus, admitting you want to get ahead of others might seem tactless, arrogant, or embarrassing. At Hogan, we recognize that getting ahead is an integral part of human nature and can even help predict workplace performance. In roles where getting ahead is a key skill, someone with a competitive personality will tend to do a better job.3

Competition and Values

Why we compete at work is also related to our values. One way to think about the relationship between our ambitions and our values is what we are competing for.

Someone who values commerce might compete to earn a higher salary or larger bonus. A person who values aesthetics might compete to produce the highest quality or most appealing product. Another person who values security might compete to create the most structured, predictable environment. Someone who values recognition might compete to receive public accolades.

Values apply to organizations as well as individuals. An organization with a competitive culture places value on getting ahead. It can compete to achieve different outcomes depending on its overarching values, such as quality, community, or efficiency. The alignment between an individual’s values and their organization’s culture indicates whether their ambitions can be met at work. Someone who values taking risks and testing limits wouldn’t make a good commercial pilot because of the culture of safety necessary in airline transportation. Instead, they might make a successful entrepreneur.

Personality Predicts Performance

Both human nature and unique personality characteristics affect our approach to workplace competition. “It’s biologically ordained,” said Dr. Hogan. “You get hungry. You get sleepy. You want power.”

Scientifically valid personality assessment provides insight into how we are likely to behave. It can reveal how likely we are to compete, what we will likely compete for, and even tactics we are likely to use.

Dr. Hogan says that people are the most dangerous and consequential forces on earth. “Isn’t it worth knowing something about them?” he asks. His rhetorical question challenges us to acknowledge and appreciate getting ahead as a key motive in human affairs and a reason why we compete at work.


  1. Hogan, R. (2007). Personality and the Fate of Organizations. Hogan Press.
  2. Hogan, R., & Sherman, R. A. (2020.) Personality Theory and the Nature of Human Nature. Personality and Individual Differences, 152.
  3. Hogan, J., & Holland, B. (2003). Using Theory to Evaluate Personality and Job-Performance Relations: A Socioanalytic Perspective. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(1), 100–112.