Dear Coach: How Should I Deal with Competitive Female Colleagues?

Welcome back to our “Dear Coach” series, where each month we answer questions we often get from the leaders we work with – “Dear Abby” style – and unpack how at the end of the day, every problem is a power problem.

What’s the Problem?

Dear Coach – I am a senior executive and I notice that the women in my organization have sharp elbows and are extremely competitive with one another. How should I think about this culture, and should I do something about it? 


Competitive Culture Cynic 


First, let’s unpack this. Your question tells us that:

  • You have some unspoken expectations or ideals about the desired state of the relationships of those on your team; you expect and wish for more collaboration and less competition.
  • You assumed, perhaps, that women (versus men) would be more collaborative by nature.
  • Either the male leaders are far more collaborative / less competitive with each other, or there’s a competitive culture throughout the organization and you’re simply more sensitive to it among the female crowd.

So, exactly how is your problem a power problem? A few thoughts:

  • If there are too few roles in the org overall, people will be forced to be more competitive with each other to get noticed and get ahead.
  • This becomes a power problem because you personally, as a senior leader, don’t feel comfortable engaging in the competitive behavior happening below and around you.
  • This issue could reflect bias against women expressing their drive. Ask yourself if men behave in the same way at your place of work—and if you have a different reaction when women show behaviors that are more expected or tolerated from male leaders? 

What’s the Solution?

To be able to respond and move forward productively, you’ll need to do several things, including:

  • Reflect on “competition.” What’s good about it? Why do you feel so averse to it? Could it become positive energy if channeled differently? 
  • Consider whether this is a bias about women’s behavior specifically, as mentioned previously. If so, try to frame it as potentially a positive thing—as an effort for women to express self-efficacy, decisiveness, and choice power. 
  • Consider the overall culture of your org. Is this competition a symptom of the broader culture?

As a senior leader, it’s important that you try to understand the competition more deeply before you write it off as a problem that needs eradicating. Maybe there are some long-standing conflicts that are unresolved that need to be brought to the surface, like differences in opinion around the strategic direction or the use of resources that need to be worked through. 

Consider if there are enough roles for women at the top, and if the competition to get ahead might be a symptom of a larger problem like a glass ceiling or narrow field of opportunity. If so, it could be helpful to bring women together to be allies in confronting that problem, so they don’t have to use those sharp elbows you mentioned in your question.

A good first step is to find some women with whom you feel comfortable and raise the topic gently—don’t assume that your perception is also theirs. Ask them about their experience and how they view the competitive culture within the org. 

At the least you’ll be taking a step to foster closer relationships; at most, you could be taking a first step towards changing the culture for all involved. 

Best of luck!

If you have a power problem you just can’t solve, get in touch! We’d love to answer your questions in an upcoming Dear Coach post. Find us at [email protected], or on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter

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