YOU hear the word competition often enough; it's everywhere and inevitable in the business world, but does it have to affect individuals at the coalface?

Competition can easily poison relationships with colleagues - you may be friendly with them but you are also guarded - so do we really need this dog-eat-dog attitude?

The answer can vary depending on who you speak to, but one thing stands out: Too much competition in the workplace is never a good thing.

It creates stress, affects employees' health and tears down team spirit. The office environment becomes toxic and people will quit.

Competition is often encouraged as it is seen as a way to motivate employees, drive excellence and increase productivity. A healthy dose of competition may just keep you on your toes and inspire you to do better.

Typically, employees have to show that they are doing better or more than their peers to climb the ladder.

Yet as Boston-based author Alfie Kohn will tell you: 'Contrary to popular belief, competition actually holds people back from doing their best work.

'Scores of studies have found that the more we're focused on beating other people, the worse our performance tends to be, particularly on tasks that require sophisticated problem-solving skills or creativity.'

Indeed, pitting one employee against another to drive productivity can be very destructive.

'Given the nature of work in the new economy where we need to complete tasks that are multi-dimensional and may require good team work, such competition may not be healthy,' says Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan.

And Singapore-based authors James and Nicole Simon, who wrote Tips From The Trenches, add: 'If there can be only one winner, then there is always a loser.

'Too much competition within the workplace can lead to lower productivity, hard feelings and a loss of focus.'

Mr James Reed, the Britain-based chairman of recruitment agency Reed, who endorses a collaborative work culture, notes: 'A truly innovative business is not a dog-eat-dog one as you have to feel comfortable sharing ideas.

'If it's a competitive environment, people are not going to share ideas and they are going to be quite keen to shoot down other people's ideas if they feel threatened.'

Kohn, who wrote No Contest: The Case Against Competition, told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: 'While no one is born with a predisposition to compete, some people have been raised to believe that they can be successful only by triumphing over others.'

To him, this is clearly a problem to be solved. 'Competitive people not only hold themselves back; they poison the entire organisation and interfere with everyone else's success.

'What works far better than setting employees against one another - so that one person's success requires other people to fail - is to create a collaborative environment where people are encouraged and helped to work with one another.'

This is where leaders have to come in and create or change work culture by not encouraging the behaviour of colleagues playing off one another.

'When you are in a negative place, it will take its toll in some form or another,' says Mr Reed, who was in town last week.

'Creating an environment where people want to stay is the manager's job. If turnover is very high, it's hard to create a culture and it would be hugely costly for us to train new people.

'Our business is unusual in that it is more collaborative than other recruitment firms. At Reed, we work quite hard to get people to work as a team and that's important.

'It's about people, strategy and culture, and people, I put first.'

If you find yourself in an environment where direct competition is unavoidable, do as the Simons advise: 'Take the high road and focus on your performance to maximise your opportunities for success.'

As former American football player Steve Young once said: 'The principle is competing against yourself. It's about self-improvement, about being better than you were the day before.'