Why chronic comparing spells career poison

June 20, 2011: 11:49 AM ET

More so than ever before, working professionals are obsessed with comparing their own achievements against those of others, all at their own peril.

By Thomas J. DeLong, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- I have an MBA student who is hyper-competitive and a chronic comparer. Shocking, I know. Let me explain. He approached me the other day complaining that he didn't feel his fellow students were providing him with the intellectual challenge he was seeking. He kept talking about how he wanted to measure his business intelligence against theirs.

I assured him that many students were his intellectual equal, but he persisted in asking me to rank his strategic sense against one student or his analytical acumen against another.  Not once did this budding business leader talk about his interests and aspirations and how his abilities might serve those interests; it was all about his strengths relative to others.

A former student of mine who graduated 10 years ago and has a terrific job at a Fortune 500 company still suffers from this comparison obsession. At least it seemed like a terrific job until she received her alumni newsletter and learned that a fellow alumna, who was in the MBA program with her, had just been named VP at a Fortune 100 company. From that moment on, she could barely hold a conversation without bemoaning her lack of VP and Fortune 100 company status; on more than one occasion, she told others she felt like a failure.

What is going on here? Social relativism is the sociologist's answer; comparing behavior is the psychologist's response. To a certain extent, ambitious professionals have always engaged in what I refer to as reverse Schadenfreude -- being pained by other people's success.

More so than ever before, though, business executives, Wall Street analysts, lawyers, doctors and other professionals are obsessed with comparing their own achievements against those of others. Over the last five years, I have interviewed hundreds of HNAPs (high-need-for-achievement-professionals) about this phenomenon and discovered that comparing has reached almost epidemic proportions. This is bad for individuals and bad for companies -- when you define success based on external rather than internal criteria, you diminish your satisfaction and commitment. First, though, let's examine the factors that have produced social relativism run amok:

The Damoclean Sword of Downsizing. Just about everyone is paranoid about being fired. If we anticipate that 15% of our managerial level might be cut by the next fiscal year, we start thinking in terms of how we compare to others in the group.

Transparency. Yes, increased transparency is a good trend, but it also has a negative component. Everyone knows what everyone else earns. Social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn immediately inform you how former friends and classmates are doing. The more aware you are of what other people are achieving, the more you compare.

Increased performance pressure.  The bar has been raised, sometimes to absurd heights. When people or teams don't make their numbers or when a performance review is less than stellar, we compare reflexively. We start beating ourselves up because our group didn't do as well as another group or our group didn't do as well as we did last year. This pressure fosters a mentality of us-versus-them; we constantly look at what someone else did and measure our own performance against it.

I should note that people also have become very specific in their comparisons. It's not just that a peer seems to be doing better than they are. Instead, executives have distinct categories in which they measure themselves against others, including salary, bonuses, job titles, perks, employer prestige, how much time it takes to reach a particular job/career goal, and publicity (articles written about you and/or your group, team or company).

The problem, of course, is that as we focus myopically and comparatively on these external success criteria, we ignore what is truly important to us. It may be that we care a lot more about working in an area that provides intellectual challenge and opportunities to learn rather than securing a job title. It may be that we're energized by a job that allows us to be creative and take risks than by one that offers a high six-figure salary and a lot of perks. Yet we ignore our internal drivers and let our external drivers lead us.

It's telling that in my 500 interviews of "high-need-to-achieve-professionals" over the past three years, more than 400 of them questioned their own success and brought up the name of at least one other peer who they felt had been more successful than they were.  Many of these individuals are considered among the best and the brightest, yet they are trapped by their comparing reflex.

By trapped, I mean that they invest far too much time and energy on measuring themselves versus others (and far too little time and energy on work that really matters).  By trapped, I also mean that they play it safe. They fear they've fallen behind, and to avoid falling further behind, they are loathe to take any risks. When they start comparing fast and furiously, failure of any kind becomes terrifying. Thus, they do what they do well and eschew the learning, stretching and risk-taking that would help them grow and achieve significant goals.

In my research, I've found that at its worst, comparing behaviors are constant. Many ambitious professionals can't get through a meeting without wondering: "Why did the boss compliment that other person and not me"? Or they hear that a colleague was chosen to attend a leadership development workshop and can't focus on tasks for days, obsessing about why they weren't picked.

Today, we need bold, visionary managers and leaders who are willing to take on stretch assignments, who are capable of saying, "I don't know," and who are eager to learn what they don't know. Unfortunately, we're seeing a growing number of professionals who lack this capacity because they're so anxious about comparing themselves to others. If they could stop comparing so much and start concentrating on their own internal preferences and goals, they and their organizations would be a lot better off for it.

To that end, here are suggestions that can help professionals avoid or extricate themselves from the comparing trap:

  • Make a conscious effort to articulate the story you tell yourself when you feel like you're falling behind others; how much of this story is based on what they've achieved versus your own professional needs and satisfaction?
  • Focus on internal metrics when you start to compare rather than external ones such as salary, bonuses and titles; think about what really provides meaning and fulfillment in work separate from how that work is rewarded by organizations.
  • Project the end result of your comparative thinking; imagine what life would be like if you had everything that the other person had; would that be satisfying or would it just lead to a new round of comparing?
  • Find someone you trust to question your comparative assumptions; talk to a knowledgeable confidante who can point out the counterproductive effects of measuring your own achievements versus others.

This last point is key.  It's one thing when professionals listen only to the voice in their heads telling them they're falling behind.  It's something else entirely when a trusted advisor provides them with an alternative voice that illuminates their flawed thinking.

Thomas J. DeLong is a management and organizational behavior professor at Harvard Business School. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success.

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