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Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges. The foundation owns Specialisterne Denmark and the Specialisterne concept and trademark.

One of the barriers to neuroinclusion and overall well-being at work is toxic, cutthroat organizational environments. Yet, despite research evidence that positive cultures are more productive than cutthroat ones, many organizations continue to create systems that pit employees against each other.

Why is this?

People often think of the iconic battles of competition—Mac vs. PC, iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy—as something that spurred innovation. It is then tempting to assume that if competition of this kind seems to have produced results, perhaps encouraging internal competition will make employees more creative and productive.

And that is a classic mistake made by many companies and managers – a mistake that results in ineffective, toxic, and exclusionary work environments.

As Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton explain in The Knowing-Doing Gap, internal competition does not translate into external competitiveness. In fact, it is likely to hurt external competitiveness and corrode organizational cultures.

In the context of neuroinclusion, encouraging internal competition is also likely to harm autistic and other neurodivergent employees, another factor in the long list of reasons why encouraging internal competition in most workplaces is a bad idea.

Why “Tough” Cultures Can Weaken Organizations

Ironically, encouraging a “tough” culture can often weaken organizations. Here are only some of the dangers of a cutthroat culture:

    • Ironically, it Increases Vulnerability to External Threats: In most business situations, the real threats come from market disruptors, changing consumer behaviors, global economic shifts, new technologies, and more. When internal teams are bogged down by rivalries, they risk missing the signs of the actual, external danger. Moreover, when employees expend energy and resources on internal rivalries, effectively solving external problems suffers.
    • Undermines Collaboration and Teamwork: Pitting employees against each other erodes collaboration. It typically leads to siloed thinking, where individuals and departments become protective of their turf and less likely to share resources or knowledge.
    • Promotes Short-Term Thinking: Internal competition can cause employees to focus on immediate wins rather than long-term strategy. They might prioritize tasks that bring instant recognition over tasks that offer long-term benefits to the organization.
    • Creates a Culture of Fear: Over time, if the emphasis is always on outperforming peers, it can create an atmosphere of anxiety and fear, leading to job dissatisfaction, burnout, poor health and absenteeism, and higher employee turnover.
    • Reduces Learning from Experience: Employees may become less likely to communicate openly about their challenges or mistakes for fear of giving a competitive advantage to their peers. This can hamper organizational learning and problem-solving and hinder the dissemination of crucial information.
    • Deters Risk-Taking and Innovation: In an ultra-competitive environment, taking risks might be seen as too dangerous, as failures could lead to negative comparisons with peers. This can stifle innovation, as employees do not have the psychological safety to innovate.
    • Potentially Demoralizes High Performers: The constant need to “stay ahead” can lead to burnout and the feeling that their efforts are only as good as their last “win.”
    • Increases Risk of Unethical Behavior: Intense internal competition can lead to employees cutting corners or even engaging in unethical behaviors to get ahead. The cutthroat culture was likely one of the reasons for Volkswagen ethical breach that resulted in Diesegate, when the company tampered with emissions readings to fake compliance with emissions standards. Unethical behavior poses a risk to the organization’s reputation and can also have legal ramifications.

Why “Tough” Cultures Can Harm Neuroinclusion

Ruthless internal competition is likely to be detrimental to any employee. However, autistic and other neurodivergent individuals may face unique challenges in cutthroat environments. From the perspective of the social model of disability, cutthroat environments can be seen as disabling to neurodivergent employees who could be some of the top performers in positive and healthy environments.

There are many reasons why promoting internal competition can be particularly harmful to neuroinclusion:

    • Risk of Bullying: Neurodivergent employees have a higher risk of becoming targets of workplace bullying, especially in ultracompetitive environments that can make bullying more likely overall.
    • Risk of Moral Injury: Neurodivergent individuals are particularly sensitive to injustice. Many also have a strong commitment to ethics. In environments that push employees toward unethical behavior, this can mean a higher likelihood of moral injury, a “trauma response to witnessing or participating in workplace behaviors that contradict one’s moral beliefs in high-stakes situations with the potential of physical, psychological, social, or economic harm to others.”
    • Overlooked Strengths: The unique strengths of neurodivergent individuals associated with specific spiky profiles, such as attention to detail, outstanding quality of work, or unique problem-solving approaches, might be overshadowed in a competitive environment that values only narrowly defined metrics of success.
    • Diminished Self-Worth: Continuously measuring oneself against others can be damaging to anyone’s self-worth, but for neurodivergent individuals, who might already grapple with feelings of being ‘different,’ self-esteem issues from prior abuse, and rejection sensitivity it can be particularly harmful.
    • Burnout Risk: Many neurodivergent individuals expend more energy on navigating social environments. In an environment of rivalry, these challenges can be magnified as they may struggle with social games, hidden agendas, and politics that come with internal competition.

Encouraging Collective Growth

There is much evidence that companies need to rethink the habit of fostering internal competition. Establishing a culture that values working together, transparency, and treating each other with respect can prove to be more advantageous, especially in the long run. Improving organizational cultures calls for systemic change. Some of the key levers for changing environments from cutthroat to collaborative include redefining how organizations measure and define success, and modeling inclusive social norms.

Redefining success metrics includes abandoning forced rankings and other relative performance indicators and instead using absolute, skill-based, or team-oriented performance criteria. Instead of comparing employees to one another, performance can be evaluated against clearly defined, objective criteria. This method assesses individuals based on their growth, achievements, and contribution to the company’s goals. Relevant criteria can also include whether the results were achieved ethically.

Rewarding collaborative and ethical behaviors means developing financial (e.g., pay, bonuses) and non-financial (e.g., awards) incentives aligned with cooperative behaviors, ethical, transparent achievement,  and knowledge-sharing. For example, organizations can introduce awards that recognize employees who represent the organization’s values, particularly those centered on mentorship, and community citizenship. Linking a modest portion of rewards (e.g., team and organization-wide bonuses) to collective outcomes can motivate collaboration.

Modeling inclusive social norms can also improve organizational cultures. For example, leaders who model supporting the participation of diverse voices in setting goals, sharing knowledge, and celebrating accomplishments of people from different backgrounds, disabled and neurodivergent employees send a strong message that inclusive behavior is the norm.

In sum, while competition between companies can lead to innovation,  internal competition can create toxic cultures that stifle growth, suppress collaboration, and are particularly detrimental to neuroinclusion. On the other hand, nurturing a culture of collaboration doesn’t just create a better work environment—it’s a true competitive advantage.