A Competing Fact

Many say competition brings out the best in us.  Is this fact or fiction?

Let’s assume it is fact.  Accordingly, since we want the best to emerge from whatever involves people we must make it a competition.  We want a winner to incite the rest (of us losers) to become winners.  No one wants to be a loser!

Clearly, in business it would be best if we begin with winners, hire the best—why hire losers!  After all it would be tantamount to committing suicide if we did otherwise; an organization comprised of losers couldn’t possibly perform well.

However, with only winners hired, competition inside the organization would be extremely fierce. Everyone would be moved to maximize his/her performance—beating everyone is the goal. Although through competition the best of the best will rise to the top, all but a few would become losers.

But what are we to do with these newfound losers? If we kept them around then the organization’s performance would surely be mediocre—they must go!  Believing that we bring out the best through competition, we need to weed these losers out by using an innovative management practice, the rank-and-yank performance management system (where the bottom 10% are fired)—talk about misuse of statistics and distribution theory!

With this management approach you can imagine the intensity of the rivalry among employees that would emerge.  Now this will surely keep the people in the organization on their toes, always looking over their shoulder not feeling at ease!  [When it comes down to me versus you, I will do my best—see it does bring out the best in us—to make sure you (and not me) fall in the bottom 10%.]

If competition does indeed bring out the best in all of us, then the implications for child rearing is clear. Life is a competition, and we want to raise children who can make the cut.  Therefore, when raising children we must pit them—especially siblings—against each other for the satisfaction of their needs.  Need satisfaction must be earned.  For example, the giving of love and affection should be according to who is most deserving—to whom ever wins.  We can’t simply give love and affection to anyone who needs it; that would just reward the loser for not being the best.  Think about it, we’d have a society of losers expecting so much for doing so little!

Let’s Think Again

An unquestionable fact is that an organization is a system—a social system at that. In other words, an organization is a social structure created by people for the collaborative pursuit of a desired goal. Given that a system is a purposefully organized collection of people in mutual relation, a properly functioning system requires cooperation and collaboration among its members.

The assumption that competition brings out the best and results in maximum organizational performance is incongruent with the systems view of the organization.  In fact, competition among members of a system leads to sub-optimization and dysfunction—counter-productive efforts, absence of synergies, waste and inefficiency.  Yes there are organizations that foster a competitive environment and they do well according to bottom line measures: The question is, how much better could they do if they had a cooperative environment?

In a cooperative and collaborative environment people feel at ease with each other—they trust each other—knowing that the intention (of each) is to co-labor toward a mutually beneficial end.  The dis-ease and its associated dysfunction that permeate a competitive environment are unlikely to arise.

Many view sport as the ideal analogy to show the benefit of competition.   Let’s examine this further.  Is it essential for members of a basketball team—or any team for that matter—to cooperate and co-labor with each other toward the accomplishment of the team’s desired end or is it better for each to try to out-do each other in an effort to his/her individual position?  Is it better for each to attend to scoring the most points or for the team to seek to maximize the points it collectively scores, which may require one to make it possible for another to score?

Before we answer this we must also understand that a system’s performance is not the linear sum of the efforts of each individual, but it includes the interactions among the individuals.  Synergy through interaction plays a major role.  Thus, depending on the nature of the relationship among people the interactions could either negatively impact—if competitive—or positively impact—if collaborative—the team’s (i.e. systems) performance.

This suggests that what many assume factual, that competition brings out the best in us, is in fact fiction.  Those arguing for it being fact might point to the performance of organizations like GE in support.  However the other side could point to Enron’s failure as a result of its use of the very same system.  The point is no number of examples can provide proof of a theory—they only provide illustration—and only one counter example is required to disprove it.

With competition among people within an organization being so toxic to the human spirit, why is it that so many structure and manage/lead based upon competition and so few believe in the benefits of a cooperative environment?

7 thoughts on “A Competing Fact

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