Have you ever heard the expression "You're only as good as your nemesis?"
At first glance, a quote like that may seem like just a playful way to stir up rivalry. But is there any truth to it? Research would suggest so.
A study from NYU found that rivalry has a measurable impact on both motivation and how you perform on a task. In fact: when studying long-distance runners, the researchers found that runners moved faster in races featuring their rivals compared to races where their rival didn't compete.
And having a rival doesn't just impact the present - it can even affect future performance. Research has also found that long-term rivalries boosted performance over years - and in the case of major tournaments and competitions, if a team's rival won the previous year, the teams showed an exceptional performance boost the following year.
Studies have also examined the impact of common rival behaviors like "trash talking" and found that when someone is being trash-talked by a competitor, they put more effort into their performance.
The workplace is different from the sports world, though. Although the rivalry-performance link may work the same, business isn't typically "winner takes all." Typically, there is no need for a "gold medal only" approach. The business world has room for us to be as successful as our competitors while harnessing the value of a positive relationship.
From that lens, turning rivals into allies can allow you to maintain the same performance enhancements, while minimizing your negative feelings towards your rival. For this reason alone, if we have rivals in our lives, we should consider making them allies and engage in a more cooperative or friendly rivalry.
Friendly rivalry doesn't have to be negative and hate-fueled. We can all probably think of a time when a peer or friend was up for the same opportunity as us -- we still wanted to win, but we probably didn't want to see them unhappy or suffering and we likely still kept the relationship intact. Depending on how friendly the relationship was, we may have even found happiness for them if they won. It is definitely possible to have a rivalry and friendship simultaneously, but it requires a shift in mindset.
There is one thing to be cautious of: the order of the relationship matters. It's easy to move from a cooperative to a competitive relationship but transitioning from rivals to collaborators is a bit trickier.
Research has found that when we transition from a competitive relationship to a cooperative one, "cutthroat cooperation" tends to emerge -- meaning that we're less likely to come to effective decisions or share information when working together, compared to teams that started off cooperatively. So if we want to make our rivals our allies, we have to prioritize building trust and the mutual benefits of the relationship.
To do this, we can look to research from professors at the Northwestern School of Management about leveraging "The 3 R's: Redirection, Reciprocity, and Rationality."
Extend the olive branch in an inviting way.
Redirection focuses on channeling the previously negative emotions into more positive ones by taking the steps to build a new relationship on positive ground.
Outline clear mutual benefits the cooperative rivalry will bring.
Reciprocity asks us to ensure that we're engaging in a mutually beneficial relationship and that our former-rival is receiving just as much value as we are.
Authentically set the relationship context.
Rationality is about being transparent about the roots of the relationship and the benefits of collaboration so that you can build the relationship from a place of authenticity and establish trust.
As powerful as it might be to keep your rival as an adversary, you'll experience even more performance benefits by shifting that relationship into one of collaboration and cooperation, so that you can leverage the advantages of trust and shared learning from someone else who has worked at a high level in the space.