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Tuesday, March 20, 2020

Myths of management

Is competition always so beneficial?

Business uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more business ideas (and downright myths) than anywhere else. Perhaps that’s because of the domination of business by men. The military was, until very recently, a male preserve; and sport has long been a staple of male conversation, since the days when it consisted of kicking an enemy’s head around a muddy field. Sport has influenced business as much as business has now come to dominate sport.

Competition is essential to sport, whether you play against your own past achievements or another team or individual. Take away the element of competition and football becomes group of hooligans in helmets knocking one another over. Golf becomes the stupidest way imaginable for putting a small, white ball into a series of holes in the grass—and why would you want to do that anyway? And tennis . . . why should one person hit a ball to one another over a piece of netting, only to have the other person hit the ball back again?

The assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such. It has a purpose, and supposedly that purpose is beneficial. Competition between products or corporations may be essential to prevent monopolistic exploitation in a free market (if only because we accept that organizations will not restrain themselves otherwise), but the assumption that putting people into competition against each other inevitably causes them to work harder or better is just that—an assumption.

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but outside the sporting arena, most people find competition increases their anxiety and level of fear. Do people do their best work when they’re anxious, frightened and under stress? Do you? If you win, all is well, and you may forget the terror you felt. If you lose…well, who cares about losers? I’m not saying competition always has such negative effects, but it’s very far from being a universal spur to healthful actions.

There’s the problem. For every winner, there must be one or more losers. And before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience? Or do many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t it also cause alienation and wreck people’s self-esteem? And doesn’t it sometimes drive people to seek to win by any means available, including deceit and violence?

Before you say losing will spur them to greater efforts next time, think about it. Is that simply your experience?

Of course, competition in sport has another purpose: it’s what spectators come to watch. The best game, from the spectators’ point of view, is a close-run match where neither player or team seems capable of beating the other. But if winning is all that counts, as we’re often told in the business world, the best game from the player’s point of view will always be the one where he or she dominates to such an extent the opponent never has a chance. Win fast with little or no effort. But who would go to watch? And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why the organizers try so hard to produce matches which hang in the balance, even, in the case of some “sports,” to the extent of choreographing events and sending players into the game with suitable scripts.

Business isn’t—yet—a spectator sport (though Donald Trump and his imitators seems to be trying to make it one), so ease of winning ought not to be a problem. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you. And that’s exactly what happens, only it’s usually done by competing against superficially able “opponents” whose ability has been hamstrung in some way—because you’re the boss; because you’ve made it clear you’ll destroy their careers if they make you look bad; or because you’ve rigged the game against them in advance.

There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing.

Making people compete against one another for rewards, attention and praise has become traditional, but it’s not the only way to set standards or share prizes. There used to be a time when awards were about showing outstanding skill or ability, regardless of other people, not just winning and losing. When showing your skill and sportsmanship counted for more than coming out on top. Thanks to the media’s obsession with turning everything into a no-holds-barred wrestling match, politicians have become die-hard competitors, judges preside over trials that closely resemble gladiatorial contests, and even literary awards are tricked out in the paraphernalia of competition, complete with squabbling judges and post-game slanging matches. And as for the Oscars . . .

Competition spurs some people to higher effort. It convinces many others it’s not worth trying and being humiliated. It causes some to seek to win by honorable means, and others to cheat. So who rises to the top? The able and honorable competitor, or the cheater? Can you tell—until it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of a “winner takes all” outlook?

Myths are not lies. They contain an element of truth, somewhere. They only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident. Competition in business is far from being the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one.



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