News Release

Ambitious workers park the office politics when employer is struggling, study suggests

Analysis suggests that ambitious workers in competitive industries tend to modify those behaviours when the standing of their organization is about to deteriorate or improve

Peer-Reviewed Publication

City University London

Workers adjust how they compete against colleagues for promotion or pay rises depending on how their organisation is performing against rivals, new research suggests.

Academics analysed the number of “overtakes” performed by motorcycle riders competing in MotoGP from 2004 to 2020. They assessed how the riders’ approach to overtaking was shaped by the competitive threats and opportunities facing their team – and the resources available to the teams it was challenging or threatened by. The data revealed how often riders sought to overtake both teammates (internal overtakes) and riders from other teams (external overtakes).

One of the study authors, Professor Hans Frankort, Professor of Strategy at Bayes Business School, City, University of London, said: “Sports – particularly motorsports – can be a good proxy for several other industries as they are extremely competitive: if you don’t perform and progress you may be out. Workers in sectors such as consultancy and financial services face similar pressures.”

The peer reviewed paper, which has been published on the website of the Academy of Management Journal, found that riders systematically adjusted their internal and external overtakes based on their team’s competitive threats and opportunities, as well as the resources available to those competitor teams.

Professor Frankort said: “Earlier research has shown that employees compete to improve their relative standing in the eyes of their employer, in the hope of climbing the career ladder. Such behaviours may include poaching colleagues’ clients or even disrupting or sabotaging their work. This study suggests that ambitious workers tend to modify those behaviours when the standing of their organisation is about to deteriorate or improve. Why? Because they see the standing of their firm as an important factor in deciding who to compete with to advance their career.

“If the company has a chance to out-perform better-resourced rivals, employees’ workplace behaviour is geared towards being seen to be a key contributor to that success. For example, a salesperson might try to poach colleagues’ clients. However, if a firm is facing threats, such as losing market share to smaller rivals, workers may feel that infighting is poor form. Instead, they would focus on competing against rival firms. Inside the firm, individuals may simply want to blend into the background when their company is going through difficult times.”

The findings suggest, Professor Frankort said, that employers can influence the nature of their employees’ competitive actions. For example, employers could highlight threats to the firm from underdog firms or its opportunities against bigger rivals.

The research also found that riders’ overtaking attempts were shaped by their contractual position with the team. For example, replacement riders – the MotoGP equivalent of agency workers – attempt more overtakes against teammates when the team is doing well and against all riders when the team is struggling.

The paper concludes: “It may be that replacement riders are keen to signal their skills relative to incumbents, hoping to secure a permanent contract.”

Riders whose contracts will not be renewed challenge their teammates on the track and are less likely to overtake riders from other teams – suggesting they feel detached from the team and even disgruntled with it.

These findings, Professor Frankort noted, give a rare insight into how employees on various kinds of contracts behave.

The other authors of the paper, Revving up or backing down? Cross-level effects of firm-level tournaments on employees’ competitive actions, are Patrick Hallila from Imperial College London and Professor Paolo Aversa from King’s College London.

Notes to editors

For further information (journalists only) or to request an interview please contact Chris Mahony, Senior Communications Officer, Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London

M: +44 (0)7867 232852   E: chris.mahony@city.ac.uk

Bayes Business School (formerly Cass) is a leading global business school driven by world-class knowledge, innovative education, and a vibrant, diverse community. The School has been at the forefront of business education for more than 50 years, developing leaders who help businesses thrive through change and uncertainty.   

Located in the heart of one of the world’s top financial centres, the School has strong links to both the City of London and the thriving entrepreneurial hub of Tech City.   

The faculty members are experts in their fields, producing cutting-edge research with real-world impact. The 2021 Research Excellence Framework results assessed 92 per cent of its research to be world-leading or internationally excellent.  

The School is a signatory of the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME). It is home to the renowned ETHOS Centre for Responsible Enterprise, and the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, one of the UK’s leading non-profit and philanthropy centres.

The School educates nearly 5,000 students each year on globally renowned courses across all levels of study including undergraduate, postgraduate and Executive Education. On graduating, students join a strong alumni community of 50,000 from 160 countries.

The new name replaces Cass Business School. In June 2020, there was increasing awareness of the links between Sir John Cass and the slave trade, which made the School, and its stakeholders, reflect on whether such a link was consistent with the School’s values. The School decided that, in line with its values and principles, it should change its name and increase its focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Read more about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work at Bayes.

The School had carried the Cass name between 2002 and 2020 after a donation from the Sir John Cass Foundation, an educational charity which has now been renamed The Portal Trust.


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