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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

Is it productive to compete at work?

When it comes to being productive and effective at work, we tend to focus on getting a better strategy, using better time management tactics, implementing a mental hack or following some diet that gives us plenty of energy. But one aspect that is rarely considered is the competitiveness in the workplace. In his book “no contest” Alfie Kohn shows that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence which shows that taking steps to create and work in a more cooperative way results in far more productive and enjoyable work.

Success and competition are two separate measures

Competition is a win/lose scenario: “If you win I lose, and if I win, you lose”. But the reality is, you can achieve a goal without anyone else having to lose, without competing with others or comparing what you’re doing with what someone else is doing. Your success is not dependent on someone else’s failure. Just like if you fail, someone else doesn’t automatically succeed.

We’ve confused these two terms, thinking that if you’re good at competing you’re on the road to success. But these are two separate measures.

Competition splits your energy and focus

If you’re playing a game of basketball (which is inherently competitive), your aim is to not only get the ball into the basket on the other end of the court, but equally to try and prevent the other team from getting the ball in the basket at your end. And there lies one of the fundamental problems with competition when it’s brought into the workplace or a learning environment: you’re splitting your attention and resources. Rather than fully focusing on the work at hand, you’re worrying about what others are doing. You often end up trying to beat them or make them fail as you would if you were playing basketball.

By definition, this means you spend less time and energy on your work. Your final product is more likely to be of a poorer quality. This problem with competition seems to be understood by many sports psychologists who advise their clients to stop focusing on trying to win and instead focus on the quality of their performance.

What does this look like in the workplace? It can happen within a team where someone might keep information to themselves for personal gain. It can happen between teams where one team may purposefully mislead another team or overly criticise another teams performance so that they look better. It can happen between companies by smearing another organisation. And it can happen between industries where one industry puts down or ridicules another.

Competition causes less engagement, not more

At first, it can seem as though competition engages us more with the task at hand. For example, at school you may have had a teacher who made a game out of remembering what a word means in French: “first person to answer correctly gets a point”. Or in the workplace, perhaps you’re pitted against co-workers to get the most sales and take home a prize if you win (I worked in a place where that prize was a slab of beer). However, not only is this not necessary, it’s actually more likely to decrease performance and engagement. It may temporarily spike interest but it’s not genuinely lasting.

What ends up happening is that the ones who are winning stop trying so hard once it’s clear that they’ve won. And the ones who aren’t as good don’t try to win and feel discouraged because they know they’re going to lose.

The many benefits of cooperation at work

Again and again, studies find that whether we look at engineering firms, manufacturing plants, utility companies, primary school children or top level executives, competition impedes performance, creativity, problem solving and lowers interest, while cooperation increases motivation and creates better results.

Cooperation is particularly effective for complex and high end problem solving. The sophistication and complexity of products was shown to be far greater in cooperative environments. Competitiveness on the other hand, resulted in less creative, spontaneous, complex and varied works. Not only that, but actively cooperating is often more productive than simply avoiding competition by working individually.

The only time when competitiveness resulted in better outcomes was when the task was very simple. Even then, it was not always the case.

This makes sense as you can imagine one person offering an idea and then another person bouncing off that and suggesting how to make it even better which then inspires yet another idea and so forth. You get the accumulated benefits and experience of multiple people’s ideas, knowledge, expertise and insights. In this way, the whole will often become greater than the sum of its parts.

These better outcomes are not just for achievement at work. The results are also true when it comes to learning.

All of this means you don’t have to choose between good work relationships where you help and support each other, and effectiveness. Having both is what works best. Cooperation is a win win.

Cooperation promotes a sense of discovery, of trying things out, a sense of safety and learning from mistakes. Yet competitive environments often have an undercurrent of “how do I not fail?” while pushing mistakes under the rug. This is because if you’re competing with others, they are more likely to point out your failures, ridicule you for them and make you feel worse in the exact moment you need support. When you don’t feel safe, how are you supposed to try something new, to explore an idea and be creative?

Trying to avoid mistakes or losses creates very different outcomes than trying to achieve a goal. For example, you might not apply for a promotion so that you won’t have to experience the possibility of failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, we can see that the competitiveness for news organisations say, to get the headline, to get the most sales, to air the story minutes before another company etc often means the quality of journalism declines. Plus, in the long run, viewers get less information than if the companies worked together.

Won’t the high achievers be held back by the lower achievers in the team?

“None of us is as smart as all of us”

Kenneth H. Blanchard

As this quote suggests, two brains are better than one. Research shows that group performance is better even than work produced individually by the best person on the team.

Even when we look at research done in education, we see that all students, no-matter their intellect, benefited from learning in a cooperative environment. This seems to be because helping someone else understand something, means you develop a deeper understanding of that material yourself.

Here’s a specific example: when we read something with the intention of teaching it to someone else (which has elements of cooperation), research shows we have a better understanding and greater interest in the material than if we read it in order to do well on a test (which is more like a competitive or neutral situation).

Different levels of thinking by different members would likely be beneficial. For example one person may be highly intelligent and able to think in abstract concepts, while another member may not be as intelligent but is better able to see practical problems. I don’t know of any research to support this last point but it seems very possible.

Do competitive people do better?

This is an interesting one, because we tend to think that if you’re the most competitive you’re the most successful. While logically there’s some truth to this, there are other elements to consider. One of them being that you can not rise to the top without the help of others. You might be a brilliant marketer or a great director but if people are turned off by your high levels of competitiveness when working, they may choose to work with and help someone else who may not be as skilled, but is more enjoyable to be around.

Many studies have compared competitiveness with achievement and found that those that achieved the most were the least competitive. This seems counter intuitive, yet it was the case whether it was Ph.D scientists, business people, psychologists, airline pilots, undergraduates or even children. Competitiveness leads to lower performance in all cases. This is refreshing as the data shows you don’t have to be a highly competitive person to succeed. In fact, if you want to succeed you’re far better off being skilled at working cooperatively.

Plus, competition is not the best measurement for success and skill. For example, if there is a piano competition, it’s not necessarily the most talented pianist that wins. The one who wins is the one who can toughen out round upon round of playing. This can often be the opposite to true artistic skill and mastery. This even applies in politics where it’s not necessarily the case that the person who can campaign the longest and be the most persuasive is best suited to govern the country. In other words, competition is hurting the very thing it claims to be aiming for ie: great performance.

Even on a psychological level, competition promotes anxiety, fear, worry etc, which are counter productive and highly destructive, chiefly in the long run. However, cooperation promotes safety, inspiration, enjoyment etc which are highly productive especially in the long run.

“But I’m not altruistic enough to cooperate”

There is a difference between cooperation and altruism. You could be the most selfish person on the planet, give zero fucks about any other human being, about any other living thing, and still, cooperation would not only be available to you, it would also be favourable.

You will have greater success personally if you work cooperatively than if you work individually or worse, in competition with others.

Let’s say you’re great at design, but you’re not interested or skilled in taking that design and making it into something tangible, nor are you interested or skilled in marketing the final product. You can either spend your time and energy learning those skills (that you’re not interested in learning), and doing those things you don’t like doing, or you can work with others to do the manufacturing and marketing for your designs.

Not only will they be more skilled than if you tried to learn and do those things yourself, but you will be able to use that spare time to get even better at doing the things you enjoy doing. That’s a personal gain.

We can even look at this more deeply: if the product manufacturer is skilled at cooperating with the marketer, he can help her understand the value of the material used in the product, both win. The value of the materials will be marketed more effectively (win for manufacturer who cares about the quality of the materials), and the marketer will have better information to market with (win for marketer who now has an easier job marketing the product and is more likely to get recognition for her good work). And everyone wins because that will mean the product has a better chance of having good sales.

We can look even deeper than this: Let’s say you run into a problem with your design. You could spend time and energy trying to figure it out. Or you could reach out to other people who may have already encountered that problem and come to a solution. This is much more efficient than having separate individuals all working on the same problem in isolation and coming up with the same solution rather than sharing knowledge.

How to increase cooperation

Cooperation is more than simply getting some people and putting them in a group (though this can be a good place to start). There will be a spectrum of cooperation and it may be different from group to group and even project to project. However, one of the main key tenants is that cooperation is set up so that you either sink or swim together. Each member is needed and each member contributes. And any benefits should be evenly shared amongst all the members.

This brings into question the idea of giving bonuses at the end of the year depending on how well an individual worked. That creates an environment of wanting to get a bigger bonus than the person next to you. Rewarding people like this causes the motivation to be extrinsic (the equivalent of dangling a carrot in front of someone) rather than intrinsic (a genuine desire that comes from within). Intrinsic motivation is far superior and lasting both for learning and performance.

The more extrinsic motivation there is, the less space there is for intrinsic motivation. Competition can turn something that’s intrinsically enjoyable and interesting, into a means to an end (that end being “winning”). It can easily remove the fun and interest and thus overall performance.

This means that a simple way to create more cooperation is to remove any competition where you can. However, cooperation does not mean that you have to do everything with someone else every step of the way. Nor does it mean every gets along peacefully. If there’s a project that needs doing, you can discuss it within a team, but then divide up the separate elements between people who can then do them individually before coming back together. If there’s a disagreement, you cooperate with one another to find the best solution rather than trying to make it “my way or the highway”.

Keep in mind that competition may have its place in some situations. And there are nuances beyond the scope of this blog. But in general, removing/reducing competition, or actively increasing cooperation, are far better ways for getting productive, innovative and enjoyable work.

Despite all this research competition is still the main paradigm under which we work and learn. We may even be shamed for saying we don’t like competition. People may claim it’s because we’re afraid we’ll lose or that it’s because we’re not strong enough. Yet this is small minded thinking, it’s assuming that the only reason someone wouldn’t compete is because of fear or weakness (rather than because it’s less effective and often psychologically destructive). It also amounts to what is essentially childish teasing and bullying. So if you find yourself in that situation, remind yourself of all the evidence above.

If you find you agree with the above information but you’re having difficulty embodying it, you can use Tapping to address that so that this information isn’t just in your head, but in how you act and feel. That way there’s congruency between your mind and body. Be patient with yourself regardless, cooperating in a world that has so much competition is going against the grain. Try taking just one small step at a time.


No contest by Alfie Kohn

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

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