Thinking More Clearly About Competition

Posted on 04 December 2020

Does competition bring out the best in people? Only sometimes.

Conventional management uses ideas from many sources, but the military and the sports arena are the origin of more widespread 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?

Business is not a game—though many people treat it as such

Business 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.

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 risk repeating their humiliation? 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?

Is winning really all that matters?

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.

Competition may not be the only way

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, or 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.

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 the difference before it’s too late? Does the rash of top executive prosecutions tell you anything about the results of today’s ‘winner takes all’ outlook?

Competition in business isn’t always the best way to encourage individual or team excellence, let alone the only one. Management myths like this contain an element of truth, somewhere, and only become dangerous when they’re treated as self-evident.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 288 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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4 Comments For This Post

  1. sambit says:

    Competition in the field of business is a wastage of resources as it may lead to over production and not necessarily the best product as competitors conceal technology from one another to create artificial barriers against production of the best goods for individuals and for society. The production of cancer drugs and such other drugs for heart diseases of high cost and high profit is essentially keeping it out of the reach of the needy in preference to the rich money bags. Much less is spent for production of low cost medicines for common diseases which can save thousands as it does not give high profit. In fact intellectual right concept creates barriers for free flow of knowledge and prevents exchange of knowledge for further development in various fields. Hence competition is never good for society. It only shows the march of greed over need. I think collaboration is much better for the society for prevention of wastage and creation of social values.This also helps by way of minimal destruction of scarce natural resources the way car pool reduces petrol consumption.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @sambit: You make some interesting and much broader points. I guess my thinking, when I was writing this article, was focused on the use of competition between individuals as a supposed way of increasing motivation—the old-fashioned concept of ‘carrot and stick’, based on offering rewards for success over colleagues and personal humiliation if you lose to another.

    For me, this whole attitude is rooted the simplistic idea that people are inherently lazy and unwilling to exert themselves. Therefore you must either force them to work, via punishments and humiliation if they don’t; or induce them to work by offering rewards that are earned in ways based on sport: the winner gets most, followed by one or two runners up, and the rest get nothing.

    Sadly for those who espouse this idea, work is not sport. One or two ‘winners’ (however you define winning) cannot make an organization successful on their own. That has been proved amply over recent months, where many so-called star CEOs have proved to be somewhere between incompetent and downright useless in bringing success to their organizations (however good they were at lining their own pockets).

    Success for any business is a team effort—so why mark out some team members as winners and label the rest, at least by implication, losers? How will that help?

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. sambit says:

    This idea of branding people with tags is always a simplistic and often wrong solution. Competition is about choosing and you choose when you don’t know how to use the entire resources at your hand in the best possible manner. so it is essentially an inadequacy in the management. In a business organization, the employees are likely to have different qualities and, if the organization can use them in the best possible manner, the entire unit gains and everybody becomes a winner in a winning team. However when the unit is unable to use the resources in an effective way for the best possible results competition is thrown in to apportion the loss. Giving carrots and stick inevitably involves judging people and no human judgment is infallible even when it is unbiased. Again the judgment is dependent on the efficiency of the system and the person manning it. With all these conditions and more, it is rarely a prescription for good policy.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    @sambit: You’re right, of course. Sadly, many managers these days put more trust in simplistic slogans than they do in their own ability to think clearly. Keep reading, my friend.

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