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Competitive Rivals Can Make You More Successful Just avoid some common pitfalls.

By Joel B. Carnevale Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Corey Jenkins | Getty Images

In a recent commercial for Gatorade, NFL star J. J. Watt offers a simple piece of advice for aspiring athletes: Find a rival. Having a rival, Watt argues, can help you stay motivated and perform at high levels. Such advice, however, is useful not only to the athletically inclined, but to entrepreneurs as well.

Having a rival can provide performance-enhancing effects for your venture. For example, a rival can keep you committed to achieving your goals, strengthen your motivation to win and enhance your overall performance. But before you go out and find another entrepreneur to outcompete, it's important to understand and avoid the pitfalls that often come with rivalry. After all, competitive rivalry can also hinder effective decision-making and increase your willingness to take risks, behaviors that can ultimately hurt your venture's success.

Here are three suggestions that can help you get the most out of competitive rivalry while avoiding the pitfalls.

1. Remain committed to your principles.

Finding someone you're committed to outcompete can be a great way to stay focused on your goals and propel your venture to the next level. But when you're intently focused on outperforming your rivals, you may begin to develop a "win-at-all-costs" mentality that causes you to ignore how you achieve success. One group of researchers, for example, examined the link between rivalry and unethical behavior. They found that when people compete against their rivals (relative to non-rival competitors), they are more willing to behave unethically to win. But such behavior may tarnish your reputation and strain other relationships that are important to your venture's success. One way to avoid this pitfall is to stop and reflect on what's important. While outperforming your rivals may provide short-term benefits, the loss of your integrity will have long-term consequences. As former world chess champion Garry Kasparov once said, "If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, compromises on principles are the street lights."

Related: The Secret to Outpacing Your Rival

2. Take the time to stop and think.

One reason having a rival can enhance your venture's performance is that it creates a level of excitement that drives you to work harder. But this eagerness to win may also hurt your venture's success, particularly when it causes you to make impulsive, suboptimal decisions. One study, for example, found that thinking about a rival caused participants to make more reactive decisions, even when a more cautious, thoughtful approach was needed to be successful. As a result, participants tended to make more mistakes that hurt their overall performance. But it's possible to avoid such costly mistakes by making a habit out of engaging in critical thinking, such as considering opposing viewpoints and conducting cost-benefit analyses, especially for those decisions that are complex and can determine the future of your venture.

3. Avoid unnecessary risks.

The sense of eagerness that comes with having a rival can not only cause you to make poorer decisions, but it can also lead you to take greater risks that put your venture in jeopardy. One group of researchers, for example, examined the potential risk-taking consequences of rivalry among a group of soccer fans. They found that fans who viewed the opposing team as a rival devoted considerably more attention to offensive strategies relative to more risk-aversive, defensive strategies. In a separate study, these researchers then examined rivalry among recreational athletes. The results showed that when reminded of a rival, participants tended to take greater risks by skipping practice in favor of playing right away, thereby forgoing the opportunity to gain additional experience. One way you can overcome the risk-inducing effects of rivalry that stand to jeopardize your venture's success is to remain attentive to your emotional state and actively monitor how such feelings are affecting your decision-making.

Related: 10 Ways Competition Can Improve Your Business

Finding a rival can be a great way to improve your motivation and enhance your venture's performance, as long as you can avoid the pitfalls. To reap the benefits of rivalry, it's important to remain committed to your principles, make a habit of critical thinking and avoid unnecessary risks.

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Associate Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on leadership, creativity and behavioral ethics at work.

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