Using CrossFit as an example, I explained how community can unleash potential in the corporate world. In this post I would like to go into more detail about the damage that competitions cause and what alternatives there are to them. Because contrary to popular belief, they do not promote performance. In competitions, there are only three winners and many losers. In a marathon, on the other hand, everyone who completes this mammoth task is a winner. The atmosphere at the end of a marathon, when everyone is exhausted but happy, is very different from that of a race or tournament, where a small group is happy, but the majority is dejected and disappointed. So, what are the pitfalls of competition and how can they be mitigated?
Competition is not only harmful to the mind, but also inefficient. Motivation does not dry up because there is too little competition, nor do we perform better because we compete. The desire to strive rarely arises from the desire to beat others. This is true across the board, especially in education, but I want to focus more on the corporate world here.
1. Competition creates fears
The possibility of ending up as a loser is distressing. The tension of having to win or not losing inhibits performance or even tempts people to cheat. It can also affect self-esteem, since most contestants, by definition, lose. Thus, research and experience show that competition is destructive to our psyche and poison to our relationships.
Any arrangement in which the success of one depends on the failure of the other is doomed to failure. And the best thing is that there is always a healthier alternative to motivate yourself: for example, you can compare your own performance to an absolute standard or to last year’s results. My advice is to introduce standards for teams and avoid comparing teams to each other. Rather, compare a team’s performance with its past performance. To strengthen the understanding of community and eliminate old rivalries between departments, teams should be cross-functional, and silos should be broken down.
2. Competition is classifying and exclusionary
„We love to rank. Worse, we create artificial scarcities, like prizes, distinctions that are pulled out of thin air so that some can’t get them. All competition involves inventing a desired state of affairs where none existed before and need not be,” says educational expert Alfie Kohn.
In education, for example, standardized test scores do not capture what is most valuable in the learning process; rather, they promote meaningless comparisons between students and even between schools. They are a sorting device to separate the so-called wheat from the chaff. Worse, educators are under pressure to teach their students in a way that will make them perform well on the test. In doing so, they forgo potentially innovative forms of teaching to ensure that students “work” selectively – for the exams. In the corporate context, this means: the standards set are not used to compare teams. Instead, standards are intended to help them understand their current state of development and thus identify and leverage potential for improvement. In Scrum, you use retrospectives after each iteration to assess where you are and how to improve. A Kanban board is also a good tool to identify improvement opportunities.
3. Competition prevents the sharing of ideas, talents and skills
Competition makes us reactive, aggressive, closed to new ideas and hostile to alternatives. It creates distrust and hostility. It creates redundancies between people trying to solve the same problems because they don’t cooperate. It creates an adversarial mentality that makes productive collaboration less likely. Most importantly, it fosters the false belief that excellence or success itself is a zero-sum game.
So, what’s the alternative? Cooperative learning, like peer coding or mob programming. When working in pairs or small groups to help each other learn is encouraged, participants feel better, are more empathetic, and develop more sophisticated cognitive strategies through which they in turn learn more. The key is to promote the non-individualistic idea of relying on and being responsible for each other if you want to succeed. This approach can be fostered, for example, through team goals rather than individual goals.
4. Competition distracts from focus
Focusing on winning often diverts attention away from the goal of the task. Optimal performance is achieved when the work itself is found satisfying and challenging, not when it becomes a means to an external goal, such as being number one.
Research suggests that competition can be motivating for simple, routine tasks because otherwise the work becomes too monotonous. But when it comes to problem solving or high-level creativity, quality is undermined by competition. Many great inventors were in a lively exchange with colleagues, which brought decisive impulses for their ideas. This is probably why all prevailing creative methods are based on group work and communities (e.g., brainstorming, design thinking).
5. Competition is short-sighted
A competitive mindset makes it difficult to truly transform organizations and society. Such changes require a collective effort and long-term commitment, which is always compromised in some way by the obsession with competition. Before starting a transformation, it is therefore even more important to set the goal, expectations and a vision so that everyone is moving in a common direction.
We can view life and organizations as either a race or a marathon. In the first case, everyone competes against everyone else (and therefore there are few winners), while in the second case, we only compete against ourselves and many can win. Whenever possible, an organization should cultivate a marathon culture. Nevertheless, participant medals should not simply be handed out either – it must be a challenge. Anyone who achieves certain quality standards should receive recognition.
The more energy a person or an organization devotes to being number one, the less likely it is to achieve and maintain authentic quality. Competition is based on external motivation. So when we devote ourselves to winning, we remove the fun and play from the experience and thus impoverish ourselves.