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: More

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