Most organizations today rewards competition. They believe that a bit of friendly competition motivates people to perform better than what they would normally do. But is competition in the workplace really beneficial? This post aims to dig a little deeper into the vices and virtues of competition in the workplace.
So let’s dig in, shall we?
Back to basics
Competition is as ancient as our world itself. The Olympic Games is probably the oldest version of the competition, but it didn’t start off as competition as we know it. It originated as a religious festival to honour the deities, specifically Zeus.
Initially, it was associated with honouring the fallen heroes in battle as part of funeral rituals. The games were a way of honouring those who lost their lives in service of keeping the empire safe. It probably compared more to the Nobel peace prize today than any form of sport. They were peaceful events with the period leading up to it a truce for people of all over Greece to come together and participate or be a spectator to witness the best of the best and give them the honour they so rightly deserve. All athletes and officials swore an oath to follow established rules and to compete with honour and respect. Cheating was probably a concept not even invented yet. The Games was about recognizing and honouring talent and skill and worship Zeus, the mythical god of thunder.
Unlike these ancient origins where the most prized skill was physical strength, in our modern world, the wars are invisible with our most prized skills thought and the ability to create digital assets. In the age of knowledge workers, it’s your creative thinking and ability to build software that makes you stand out. Hackathons have become the modern-day version of the Olympic Games of old.
So how can we leverage the benefits of modern-day competition in the workplace? How can you focus on the virtues rather than vices?
The entire world witnessed exactly how destructive competition can be in the 2020 US presidential elections. It’s the perfect example summarizing all the vices that competition brings, with the most obvious points briefly described below.
To win at all cost
The desire to win is often so strong that people will do anything, and I mean anything, to win. People will publicly shame, blame or badmouth innocent bystanders, all in an attempt to kill those voices that do not agree with the voice of the person they deem to be the winner. It, however, damage the relationship and cause productive progress to come to a complete standstill. All available energy is used to defend and justify.
With competition in the workplace, this ‘warfare’ is somewhat more subtle and easily overlooked. It’s the person who whispers complaints about their colleague by whom they feel threatened in the ear of the leader to make them look good. Or the outspoken person that hi-jacks the meeting not leaving space for anyone else to voice their opinion. Maybe it’s the person who will find a way to find loopholes in the system to make the stats look more impressive than what it really is. This year.
The sad truth is that mostly these strategies work really well. It is the most vocal and overpowering that gets the promotion. Or the most sly, able to talk their way around anything that is rewarded.
Divide and conquer
Relationship is everything. It’s the ability of a team to collaborate and come together as a whole that determines success or failure. When, however, negative gossip divides a group into us and them, you weaken and possibly even destroy relationships.
In work environments, it is this division that slowly and destructively breaks down unity. Little by little the quality crumbles as the relationships crumble.
Fear divides. Love unites.
The fear-driven manager will spend his energy to win over allies and turning people against the perceived competition. They believe that by making someone else look bad, they will look good. If this is overlooked and rewarded, it strengthens the culture of divide and separation. Soon an organization is filled with silo’s each blaming the other for everything that goes wrong, leaving the entire organization losing in the end.
One of the most destructive behaviours in a team is that specialist, manager or team who withholds information in order for him or her to be the proverbial hero that everyone needs.
It’s that person who rushes to deliver more neglecting the time to make sure everything is in order before releasing to production in order to be the hero. First, he is the hero because he completed the most deliverables. Then he is the hero again when the bugs finally surface in production and he is the only one who can fix it.
Often it’s the hero that gets the bonus while the tenacious but slower coder is considered average on the bell-curve and doesn’t get the promotion or the bonus.
The zero-sum game
I play a lot of board games. You can tell more about a person by playing a single game than a bunch of interviews and personality tests in my opinion. I can tell someone’s ability to strategize, to work as a team, to problem solve, to communicate, and to listen to name but a few. There are collaborative games – which I enjoy – and then there are the competitive zero-sum games where there’s one winner, with the rest all losers.
What I’ve learned from playing these zero-sum games is that whether you’re the winner or the loser, no-one ultimately walks away feeling great. The losers for obvious reasons. Interestingly, the winners tend to fall into one of two categories. Those who feel bad right away when they cause someone else to lose. And those who get a high from the immediate dopamine rush of winning, only to have to win again and again in order to maintain it, much like an addiction. They, however, increasingly struggle to find people to play with as few people enjoy playing games with someone who has to win at all cost. This kind of winner ends up even more miserable and lonely in the end, it just takes much longer for the effects to surface.
When you’re playing a zero-sum game ultimately there’s no winner. Everyone walks away from a loser in the end. Some just lose earlier than the others.
There’s no progression and no growth when the balance results in a zero. In an organization, the same dynamics apply. Often it’s the managers desperate to “win” that ends up lonely and excluded from team conversations and community. They might win the title, but they lose on every other aspect.
Competition in the workplace isn’t, however, only bad. It can be a wonderful showcase of talent and possibly the future of recruitment if seen through the lens of virtue.
Showcase of talent
During my school years, I wasn’t good at sports. But I had a natural talent for music and my teacher enthusiastically would enrol me in competitions.
I didn’t much like these exams or competitions. I didn’t play the piano to be the best or to get a certificate. In fact, I threw away most of my certificates or dumped them in a pile as if it was dirty clothes, not seeing the value of a piece of paper with a fancy stamp. I played music as an outlet for my emotions and to share my talent with my best friend when we played a duet. By far the most fun I had was playing a duet. Solo performance simply didn’t excite me.
Even though I can’t say I enjoyed these competitions, I did enjoy the feeling of being seen as good at something. It felt really good sharing my talent with those who appreciated music while at school I was the odd one for liking classical music. I also really liked receiving applause for a well-performed piece. I somehow felt witnessed.
Competitions are an excellent way to reward and recognize talent. When competition in the workplace celebrates talent it can be a great way to motivate people to develop their skills even more.
An objective measure of skill
Another great virtue of competition is that it objectively and fairly gives you actual feedback regarding your skills compared to other people. In a competition, everyone starts with a blank slate at the same time and with the same resources. It is as fair as can be and a tool to compare yourself to others, away from office politics or favourites at work.
We all want to be a master at our craft and everyone should aim to be the best version of themselves. We often, however, think we are better or worse than we actually are. Competing with others is a way to correct the misperception and show us the reality of our skill away from the influence of our specific organization or team.
Just because you’re the best in your team doesn’t mean you’re the best. It might not even mean that you’re very good. It just means that there’s no-one else better than you. Competition can be a great reality check.
Skill sharing platform
My personal favourite reason to compete in hackathons – far more than receiving recognition or objectively gaining feedback on my skill relative to others – is the ability to learn new skills and get constructive feedback from professionals.
When I was young, arrogant and very insecure, I dreaded any form of feedback. Having grown up in a house where criticism was the only attention I received, naturally I avoided it at all cost and worked extra hard to be considered “good enough”. It frustrated my boss that I wouldn’t want to show him my work until it was perfect but I simply didn’t have the courage to risk any form of criticism on my sensitive ego.
As I, however, started facing the shadows of my upbringing being bullied and criticized, I started seeing the value of early feedback. I could finally see it as people helping me and a means to become better.
No matter how good someone is, they can always get better. There is always something more to learn. The world is changing so fast that in fact, it’s not possible to master all the techniques in your area. The key is not to try to know it all. It is to never stop learning. When you look at people through a curious lens searching for something you don’t already know, life becomes pleasurable.
Competition in the workplace can be very destructive. There are, however, two sides to every coin. The choice is yours whether you look at it through a lens of vice or a lens of virtue.
Next time you schedule a meeting or plan an event, ask yourself what you can do to ensure everyone walks away from a winner. When everyone wins, growth is exponential. When, however, you play a zero-sum game, progress comes to a grinding halt. What would you rather have?
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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.