Three Ways Noncompetitive People Can Still Get Ahead

You don’t like to toot your own horn or tear others down–and that’s great. Here’s how to make your agreeableness a career asset.

Three Ways Noncompetitive People Can Still Get Ahead
[Photo: Flickr user Royal New Zealand Navy]

Many of us assume that success is all about a tenacious climb to the top. Watch this year’s election coverage and you may come away with a renewed certainty that for one person to win, another’s got to lose.


Of course, some people just don’t have the stomach for this kind of competition in their own lives. Even if you like rooting for a sports team or two, or enjoy the odd round of Scrabble, your spirit may flag at the idea of fighting tooth and nail to push your professional interests at every possible moment.

And you may be right. It can be hard–even downright exhausting–to spend time strategizing to make sure your work gets noticed and you get the credit you deserve for every success you achieve. It might even put a bad taste in your mouth to put your needs ahead of everyone else’s, even at times when you actually should.

If that’s you, then chances are you’re high in the personality characteristic psychologists refer to as “agreeableness.” As I’ve written in my book Habits of Leadership, this trait reflects how strongly you feel motivated to get along with other people. When you really want to get along with others, it’s hard to prioritize your own needs over theirs.

It isn’t hard to see how this can turn into a career detriment. Often, if you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will. There’s even quantifiable evidence that agreeable people, on balance, tend to struggle to advance in the workplace.

But all hope isn’t lost for you. The truth is that you don’t actually need to be ultra-competitive in order to succeed. Here are a few ways to advance your career, even if you don’t have the most competitive disposition.

1. Make Collaboration A Big Part Of Your Brand

The modern workplace is pretty different than it was a couple decades ago. There’s a lot more mobility on average, with employee tenures much shorter than they used to be. For the more agreeable among us, that’s good news–if you know what to do with it.


For one thing, it makes the value of your social network much higher than ever. When people are putting together a new project and need someone to help lead it, they’ll be looking for people who can quickly build a team and get things done. If you focus on honing and showcasing your collaborative skills, your name will rise to the top of the list of people who get the call for opportunities like those.

Ultimately–and arguably more and more, as the workplace shifts to accommodate more project-based work–success isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s always been possible for you to succeed alongside others, and our own professional fates may be becoming even more wrapped up in our collaborators’ in the years ahead. That’s something recruiters and hiring managers seem to be betting on, judging from the conspicuous premium many are placing on emotional intelligence and related soft skills.

Related Video: Successful Collaboration Relies On Trust, No Matter How Far Away Your Colleague Works

2. Be A Good Mentor

A great way to broaden your influence is to enhance the careers of the people who work for you. It goes back to the increasing mobility we’re seeing in the workforce; the people you train will probably be working for someone else a few years from now. At a minimum, they may be working for another group within the same organization.

People remember their mentors. Over time, the efforts you put into coaching your team members and helping out your colleagues will wind up benefiting other companies and groups of people who, in turn, are invested in your own success. This is, after all, the whole point of having a professional network. But many people–especially highly competitive ones–tend to overlook the role mentorship plays in this type of system.

Those you mentor now will open up opportunities for you later. They’ll offer you job referrals and recommend you to people they know (that you may not) who are looking for the right talent. After all, the most effective leadership comes from a groundswell of support, rather than the need to hold onto power with an iron grip. Naturally agreeable people may have a leg up on that score.

Ask The Expert: Felicia Day On Finding A Mentor

3. Find Comfortable Ways To Toot Your Own Horn

There are two basic elements to competitiveness. One is the need to tear others down to ensure they don’t get ahead of you. The other is to enhance your own reputation in order to get noticed.


There’s never much to gain from disparaging your colleagues. But that doesn’t mean you should also refrain from touting your own accomplishments. When your team succeeds, pass the credit around to others, but also make sure people are aware of what you did to help the team succeed. This doesn’t need to involve a lot of fanfare. In fact, you should find ways to work it into a part of your usual process. Give frequent reports to more senior people in your organization to let them know what’s going well. Then, during the really exceptional situations in which you played a major hand, it won’t feel as awkward to take advantage of opportunities to be recognized yourself.

One of the problems agreeable people face is that they’re often reluctant to take credit for things they’ve done. This is particularly true for agreeable people who are also somewhat introverted, in addition to being less competitive, they may also shrink from being the center of attention. But just as introverts can get the hang of self-promotion, agreeable folks can learn to take credit for their own accomplishments–which starts with simply keeping others apprised of them.

That way, you’ll be able to get the recognition and opportunities you deserve without having to go head-to-head or tear anybody down in the process. You’re probably better off that way.