Is competition a universal motivator? Is it worth encouraging? Does it work to bring out the best in people?

In business, competition is everywhere: organizations compete for customers, suppliers compete for orders, and employees compete for attention and promotion. In most organizations, this employee competition is encouraged — even required. But is more competition — competition brought about deliberately or enhanced by management efforts — really the best way to motivate people and bring out the best in them? Is it, as conventional management thinking contends, the universal motivator?

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.

Sport as a source of business thinking

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 right back again?

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 — and regulation is often rejected as government interference or frustrated by special interests); 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.

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 what actually happens? Don’t many “losers” resolve never to repeat such humiliation again? Doesn’t being branded a loser often 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 even violence?

Business competition is typically rigged

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. And without spectators and TV audiences, there would be no money. That’s why match organizers try so hard to produce games 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 seem to be trying to make it one), and so rigging the game to win more easily is not much of a problem. 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 no effort is the ideal. If you want to be a winner, pick on others who have no chance against you.

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.

Employee competition is rarely “fair” in any objective way. Traditional systems — based as they are on subjective ratings and unstated standards — are heavily rigged in favor of those already in power and their chosen protégés. The way to the top depends more of who you know, and how you play the political game, than what you know or how able you are. Businesses are social systems, with all that implies about influence, schmoozing the powerful, and the power of looking good.

Competition for promotion and rewards is often more about how things look than how they are. It’s more like a scripted entertainment than a genuine contest. The rules for winning are there, but rarely stated openly, despite all the nonsense about “competencies” and appraisals. Rewards are given out on a large subjective basis. Those in power make sure the winners are those who they want to win — those who are most useful to them, the ones they like, and probably the ones most like them as well.

What competition produces in reality

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, sport has forgotten sportsmanship, 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 . . .

It’s no surprise that competition has also become the chosen window-dressing of business as well. Let those who don’t matter compete as much as possible. They’re all “losers” anyway, so who cares who gets hurt? If competition drags out a little extra effort, that’s good. If it doesn’t, it hardly matters.

The true competition in business has little to do with producing results. It’s all about display, playing politics, and destroying those who stand in your way — even if that means hurting the business as well.

in a world of no-holds-barred competition, those who rise to the top are the most ruthless, the most driven, and — all too often — those with the weakest consciences. Who rises to the top? The most 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?

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 use every dirty trick they know to cheat their way to the top. When you look at it objectively, 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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