Why any amount of competition can hinder team work
How do you cultivate good work relationships? What helps those relationships thrive and benefit not just on the individual level, but also the team and the company? And what causes those same relationships to be threatened? One vital piece that can often go unnoticed is the element of competition. It is so pervasive, that we often don’t see all the ways it manifests itself. We might claim that we are part of a team and that we are working cooperatively, but there can easily be underlying elements of competition that erode the structure of strong relationships without anyone noticing.
To be clear, competition is defined as a structure which says: “If I win, you lose, and if you win, I lose”. This can be seen with things such as choosing not to share useful information because it gives us an advantage, or speaking over someone because we think what we have to say is more important. It can be spurred by wanting a bigger bonus than the person working next to you. It can be encouraged when a company makes employees compete for who can get the most leads - that person is cheered at the front of the room by the boss while everyone else is left feeling resentful, not good enough or just plain exhausted and demoralised.
“But in the real world, people don’t just get along”
Exactly! People won’t agree on everything, there will be conflict. That is precisely why cooperation is so important. Disagreements aren’t bad, in fact, working through disagreements can often strengthen relationships with people. But when disagreements happen in a competitive setting, it’s more likely to lead to the dissolution of the relationship rather than contributing to its resilience.
If we work in a competitive setting, working through disagreements can all too easily turn into forcing others into silence or being the loudest and strongest in the room. While that might stroke the ego, it may mean everyone misses critical information that someone has simply because the person with that information doesn’t feel safe speaking up.
A competitive setting is also more likely to send us into a fight-or-flight response. This will make us stupid and negatively effect our health. But if we’re trying to figure something out with someone else with whom we have a disagreement, there’s an element of connection there. That connection makes us more resilient. In other words: things are difficult enough as they are, competition unnecessarily compounds the problem, while cooperation helps us work through the rough terrain with a better chance of survival.
Working cooperatively means that different points of view can come to light. Conflicts can be worked through in a healthy way to come to a greater understanding or a more beneficial solution. From a business standpoint, this will often lead to a more sophisticated and successful end product/solution etc.
Cooperation means that the success of each individual is linked to that of everyone else's. As Kohn puts it, “the difference between cooperation and competition is the difference between listening to each other’s points of view and twisting each other’s arms.”
This is also backed by research which shows that cooperation is more enjoyable, people learn more from it, people are better able to see other points of view with it, people encourage others on their team more, there are better relationships and positive interactions as a result of it, it fosters a greater trust in one another and there is improved communication.
How competition damages work relationships
By definition, competition means “If I win, you lose, and if you win, I lose”. This is damaging in any kind of relationship. If you want someone else to lose, it means you’re less likely to help them, you’re less likely to have a good attitude towards them, or trust them (seeing as you know that they want you to lose in turn). Competition is a terrible set up for healthy relationships (work or otherwise).
It’s important to note that this is due to the inherent structure of competition. It is not because people are bad.
Here’s another nuance: If two companies are producing a similar product, and you’re working for company A, it initially seems straightforward to hope that company B makes a mistake or does poorly in some way, as that will leave more room for your company's product to do well. While there are flaws to this thinking, there’s a base kind of logic to it.
But let’s say you’re working on a project that’s not going well and as a result you feel bad. Then you hear about someone in a different area of the company who has had a success. If there is a competitive environment in the company, an environment where everyone is always trying to be number one, you might feel like you’ve “lost” compared to them or you might feel jealous that they’re having a good day and you’re not. But the reality is, their success or failure has no correlation with your success or failure.
This shows that the very structure of a competitive environment is one that will cause tension, resentment, alienation, separation etc even when it’s not logical. It erodes the trust and support that is so vital for long term success.
Furthermore, if your primary aim is to win (which is how competition is set up), dehumanising and objectifying other people makes achieving your goals much easier. Because if you need to go behind someone’s back to get an extra step up, it’s much easier to do that when you see that person as a faceless pawn rather than as someone with friends and family, bills to pay, hopes and dreams, personal problems, past traumas and insecurities. This is something that multiple sports players have spoken about - they sometimes think of their opponent on the field as faceless people in order to help them win.
In other words, a competitive environment at some level incentivises dehumanisation.
We may say we’re all about helping each other, it may be written on the wall as a company value. And when that was written, it’s very likely that it was done with sincerity. But if the structure and environment is competitive, all those nice words and ideas about teamwork and looking out for each other won’t add up to much.
We may help other people, and on the surface it looks good. But the reality is, underneath it all, that help is really about getting something out of it personally (perhaps at a later date). It comes from a place of doing "whatever it takes to improve my position.” There are circumstances where this works just fine (though it can often be accompanied by a fake smile and an inauthentic vibe). But eventually, there will be a moment where you will be able to improve your position by stepping on someone else. If the focus is on personal gain, you will more likely stab that person in the back.
Competition encourages us to see other people as stepping stones for our own personal success. That is not a good recipe for strong work relationships.
You might think that only a little competition isn’t all that bad: “A bit of competition is good” we say. You may be right, but consider this: we used to believe that watching competitive and aggressive sports would purge us of our need to be competitive and aggressive. However, the research shows just the opposite. It’s as though the more we witness and experience competition and aggressiveness, the more we model that behaviour, the more acceptable it seems.
There were a series of experiments with boy scout camps over a three week period in which participants were divided into two teams. The teams slept in separate cabins and competed against each other in games like football, baseball and tug of war. In true competitive tradition, the winners got a prize. As the researchers suspected, the competitive attitude generalised to where the teams became hostile towards one another with insults, taunting, throwing food, burning the other teams banner, planning raids etc. This was done even once the game was over. Ultimately, friends turned on each other simply because they were on the opposing team.
We could brush this off and say “ah, it’s just boys having fun”, and I think there’s some truth to that. But what if the boy scouts were to play cooperative games or do cooperative activities instead? For example: everyone working together to get things up a rock wall, or everyone building a giant cubby house, or everyone standing in a circle with a volleyball, with the aim of keeping the volleyball in the air but everyone can only hit it once? I suspect there would have been a very different outcome yet the physical activities could be just as physically and mentally engaging.
Think about how this same principle affects the work environment within your team.
We even see this rippling out effect at sporting events, where the initial thrill of cheering for your favourite team turns into violence, in some cases causing hundreds of deaths, not to mention riots and looting.
“There are so many cases of spectators becoming violent as a result of an emotionally pitched game, that we have to wonder why the notion persists that the viewers will lessen their aggressive inclinations by seeing the game. Clearly someone forgot to tell these fans that watching highly competitive or aggressive sports is supposed to subdue their aggressive tendencies.”
Here’s another experiment that illustrates this point:
The participant of the experiment heard a loud noise every time he saw a white rate. As you would expect, he learned to fear white rats. However, more interestingly, that fear was generalised to everything furry.
What we can learn from this is that while we may think we can compartmentalise things, our ability to do so seems limited. If our work environment is highly competitive, we can all too easily bring that into our personal life - just like we can be fuming with anger at something that happened years ago. There’s an energetic component that isn’t limited by time and space. If at work we compete for who has the biggest pay-check or who is the most productive, we may begin to compete in our personal relationships with regards to who is more loving, who is more selfless etc. We’re not robots who can just switch the button of “competition” on and off.
You might say that competition isn’t bad, or that it’s part of being human and by not being competitive we’re suppressing an innate characteristic. But it’s difficult to ignore the reality that it does put us in a certain state where we become more predisposed to act competitively and aggressively if we get frustrated at a later time. People might say it’s just fun and games, but when things are set up to beat another person, where their loss becomes your gain, there’s something inherently sinister about that. It’s like someone cruelly taunting another person and then putting on an innocent face and saying “but I was only kidding.”
The answer may not be to eliminate all competition and all aggressiveness. As with many things the solution doesn’t seem that simple. Holding in aggression and competitiveness can cause its own set of damages. I don’t have all the answers to this, and I suspect there are plenty of things I’m unaware of. But discovering this research and point of view has definitely shaken things up for me.
I do think it’s worth looking beneath the surface to see why we compete, to become curious about whether competition is the best approach, to brainstorm on ways that we could remove competition and bring forth cooperation not just in ourselves but also in the very structure of how we work, to use methods such as Tapping to help regulate our system and perhaps change our emotional and behavioural patterns.
No contest by Alfie Kohn