Monday, July 03, 2020

Controlling Competition

Sport and competition go together: It's difficult to imagine a game that does not include competition. Competition and business go together too, so it's not surprising many analogies are drawn between sporting achievement and business success. Yet the comparison fails because work and business are not games. What happens when competition is wrongly used and the workplace becomes more like a gladiatorial arena than a community of people working towards common goals?

Most sports have rules to govern and limit competition. Business has rules to increase it because competition is seen as a powerful way to lower costs and ensure a wide availability of goods and services. This may be true of economic competitiveness, but I'm thinking about internal competition between colleagues in the same business, or between departments and divisions—competition treated by leaders as the most obvious way to motivate people through providing competitive opportunities for achievement and recognition.

Let’s think more carefully about how much competition is healthy in the workplace, and how to restrain it from getting out of hand and undermining cooperation and motivation.

The essential difference between sporting competition and many of the competitive ideas that pervade the business world is choice. No one is forced to play a sport; players choose freely to compete. More importantly, they choose the level of competition they feel comfortable with. Not every tennis player expects or desires to play at Wimbledon or in the US Open. Given freedom to decide, players typically match the level of competition they enter with their skill and motivation. Many are content to play as “duffers” with their friends, some may strive to play in local or even regional tournaments, and some work to achieve the sport’s highest honors. At every level, the element of competition is always present, but the player is in control of its intensity.

Being in control of the challenge allows competition to be fun. If you're truly keen, you can try to become a world champion. If you’re less willing to give your all to the sport, you can settle somwhere lower down. Great champions are admired, but more lowly players suffer no loss of face for limiting their ambition to what they can handle.

Compare this with much of the business world. Many organizations establish highly competitive structures for salaries, promotions, even keeping your job. The organization sets the standards the “competitors” must meet to win, sometimes setting them at some impossibly elevated level based on the aspirations and fantasies of the CEO, not the actual abilities of the staff. This competition is definitely not voluntary. Failure doesn't see you dropped to a lower league more suited to your talent. It gets you branded a loser with a big dent in your future job prospects, or even ejected more or less publicly from the organization. In such an environment, competition is forced on everyone. People have no control over its intensity or frequency, like circus animals being prodded to jump through a series of hoops for the amusement of the audience.

When competition is forced, it's no longer fun or motivating, especially if the level is set well above where a person feels confident of competing. Instead of the pleasure of being a competitor who feels he or she has a chance of winning, you are reduced to someone whose main desire is to avoid being humiliated. Being overmatched does nothing to increase motivation or skill.

Besides, in what other circumstances are adults deprived of control over major aspects of their daily lives? If they are judged mentally incompetent? If they are in jail? People usually associate lack of choice with early childhood, when the child is too immature to grasp what really matters, or with extreme infirmity or age, when faculties diminish too much to allow for rational decision making. The essence of being an adult is to be able to handle decisions relating to your own life. Some may argue that no one has to take a job in a highly competitive culture. I would counter that it’s becoming hard to find a culture that isn’t, because such extreme internal competition benefits the organization and its shareholders at the direct expense of the people who work there. Competition is assumed to be motivating, even when it clearly is not.

Maybe it's time that leaders thought about competition in more humane terms and worked to create environments that bring the fun element of competition into the workplace, not the harsher side. It’s the leader’s job to monitor and control competition internally, generating the right level to stimulate each person without overmatching them and crushing their spirit. That’s the way to bring out the best in people, especially if competition is directed towards each person competing with themselves and their own past achievements. No one can cooperate easily with colleagues who are turned into rivals in some all-out race for rewards, recognition and job security.

Understanding the right level of competition for each person is another essential leadership job that takes time: time to get to know each person’s abilities and degree of drive to do better; time to encourage and stimulate them to take the risk of competing by providing enough support to keep the process enjoyable and exciting. Extreme competitions are won only by obsessively competitive people. A business full of them would most resemble a pool full of hungry sharks, eying one another to see who is next on the menu. It that any way to organize a civilized workplace?

Here is Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician and Nobel prize winner, writing in 1930:
Competition considered as the main thing in life is too grim, too tenacious, too much a matter of taut muscles and intent will, to make a possible basis of life for more than one or two generations at most. After that length of time it must produce nervous fatigue, various phenomena of escape, a pursuit of pleasures as tense and as difficult as work (since relaxing has become impossible), and in the end a disappearance of the stock through sterility. It is not only work that is poisoned by the philosophy of competition; leisure is poisoned just as much. The kind of leisure which is quiet and restoring to the nerves comes to be felt boring. There is bound to be a continual acceleration of which the natural termination would be drugs and collapse. The cure for this lies in admitting the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life.

[This is an extended version of a post that appears today on]

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Mr Funk said...

Damned insightful. But how does one go about creating an optionally comptetitive workplace for one's team? How can we set up an environment where opting out of the comptetion does not make a team meber feel she is throwing in the towel early?

10:24 PM  
Paavani said...

Very right, Intensity matter. A healthy game is always good, where is there is right mixture of competition and fun.
Competition could be good or bad catalyst depending upon the way you take it.

11:06 PM  
Jonathan said...

I have a different view of sport & work. I find that there is much in sport that we could transfer to business (I am a qualified rowing coach BTW). The first is clarity of goals / objectives. A team and coach spend a lot of time discussing and agreeing a realistic set of goals - teams commit to the goals as a team. How often does this really happen in business, especially with teams?

In goal setting it is important to set some goals that are independant of the environment. The most important are those that stretch the team irrespective of the competition. Contrary to popular belief winning is not everything - if a team sets only goals that involve winning every race then a few losses will have them to throwing in the towel. The skill of the coach is to choose races that match the skills and inspire the team to improve. In this way, constant improvement is the key to high-performance teams.

So if competition means winning is everything, then I agree it is a destructive force.

But competition should mean driving for constant improvement in performance. How can this be destructive?

4:34 AM  

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