Competition: The Good. The Bad. The UGLY.
Updated: May 21
From one former All-American collegiate swimmer to my athlete peers...
The three distinctions of competition — let’s take a look at those today and especially, in these times, make the case for collaboration at the highest levels, instead of competition.
Competition acts as the driver in pushing individuals or groups to perform. Competition motivates people and teams to be better, stronger, smarter, and faster. Collaboration is the action to work with another to produce or create something. Like competition, it also helps the individual or team to be better, stronger, smarter and faster.
I wrote this months ago, but the time seemed right to share today. We are in the beginning of what could be the greatest collaboration in our generation as science, government, economists and society work together to solve the COVID-19 crisis.
“Winning isn’t everything. But the will to win is everything.” - Vince Lombardi
Competition is why we’ve evolved as humans. Throughout human history, humans have competed to survive. We’ve needed to compete in order to find food sources to nourish our bodies. We’ve evolved in competition in order to procreate. Competition has kept us safe in dangerous situations as we’ve been able to be faster and out smart our predators. The root of Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution is competition. It states that “all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” (Adrian Desmond 2004)
In terms of economies, and economic growth, competition is a crucial factor. Competition places pressure on firms to improve efficiencies in order to deliver products and increase market share faster than their competitors. Additionally, competition fosters innovation and creativity, while positioning the market as an attractive arena for foreign investment, which oftentimes precedes growth. (LSE Office of Fair Trade 2018). Competition in industry helps companies fight against complacency. And, friendly competition often creates the arena and space for improvement and growth at a more rapid pace than without competition.
Let’s move into a discussion of the role of competition in athletics. There is a winner, and there is a loser. This causes individuals or teams to compete at their best level of play. To reach first place, the individual or team is driven to improve, practice, learn from mistakes and ultimately, become better and more skilled. The definition of competition; to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective. (Webster) One winner and one loser. Not many of us would argue that this is bad, especially if we’ve reaped the benefits of sports in our lives and been successful in many areas.
Now...here’s the BAD:
However, I would venture a counter-intuitive thought to my fellow athletes. Competition in teams, athletic, or otherwise, can negatively affect the people involved when not kept in check. We’ll call this ‘extreme competition’. It can create a culture of backstabbing and infighting when winning at all costs is the main message. Trust may be absent in highly competitive environments, and resource hoarding becomes an all too often by product. Teammates may refuse to share ideas or to innovate due to the fear of someone else getting all of the credit. Consequently, isolation and depression may ensue.
Competition at its best helps us to be better. At its worst, it can create unhealthy self-comparison or judgement. And, if we’re not careful, our thoughts can derail our dreams, goals and well-being. Do we see the world as a place to grow and collaborate with others? Or, do we see the world as a “dog eat dog” culture where every man or woman is for him/herself?
No one wins in the comparison game. When we compare, we compare our worst, to their best and never win. This causes decreased self worth and self respect.
And, the UGLY:
Here's the scariest part of competition when left unchecked: we limit our own capacity and growth. What if, when we compete with others, we are settling for less than what we would be and could do, without the comparison? What if, once we’ve passed up the other guy, we back off, even if we could’ve gone further or higher? This is a sobering reality for many, and can happen in both arenas of individual performance and team performance. What would happen if we competed only with ourselves? How can we absolutely keep the blinders on and be our best selves?
When we teach our children to “lose gracefully”, we teach resilience and learning for long-term improvement.
We can send the message that failure isn’t to be avoided or feared...it’s the ONLY way through to success. When I coach my clients, or when I coached my swim team...it’s all about practice, practice and practice. Or, failure, after failure after failure. The ugliest part of competition is when we become afraid of or resistant to trying again to be our best version of ourselves.
There you have it...the GOOD, the BAD, and the UGLY. Now...where can we pivot to collaboration to drive performance even higher?
“As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” - Amy Poehler
The definition of collaboration: “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” (Webster) Collaboration is the special sauce that helps individuals and teams create synergy. It’s the adage of 1+1=3. The sum of its parts are exponentially bigger than the individual parts. Here’s an example; If I have an idea, and you have an idea….we each have only 1 idea. However, if we share the idea with each other, we now both have 2 ideas. And, when we share these ideas, oftentimes a third, and best idea surfaces.
Working together and striving for collaboration creates win/win scenarios. There are two winners, as opposed to a win/lose scenario in competition. Win/win scenarios are an integral part of a high-performing workplace culture. This allows people in their team or workplace to be flexible, to think of others’ ideas in the best light before dismissing, and to empathize with the person as a real human. (Forbes 2019) Collaboration creates trust which creates safety. Safety then creates space for people to stretch for goals, and risk failure more often. Trust also decreases the fear of censure, and that perception shift then improves engagement.
Collaboration begets the question, “What can we do together that we could not do alone?” Working with others may be messy, but using this question at the outset can transform. Beginning with the spirit of collaboration causes many powerful teams and partnerships that would not be the same if they stayed only with their individual skills, resources and beliefs.
When we examine collaboration in economies, today’s global market makes a strong case for collaboration over competition. Collaboration increases innovation due to the truth that people trust each other, they give freely of ideas instead of hoarding them. Collaboration and sharing lead to fresh ideas. Also, people feel safer in working with others, which causes a decrease in unnecessary risk. Collaboration flushes out pitfalls and inefficiencies that one person may not think of, or be aware of. Successes are shared, but so are failures and losses.
And, as we think of the world as a whole, collaboration plays a much bigger role now than the survivalist competition tension that got us to this point. Societies that share ideas and innovate for the future will become stronger and increasingly stable, while societies that shirk collaboration and strive to “be the best” may be at risk for economic downturns and political turmoil. As quoted in “Uplift”, biologist Elisabet Sahtouris says, “We are capable of regaining our reverence for life, of replacing the drive to conquer with the will to cooperate, of remaking our engineered institutions, including our corporations, into living systems.”
“If you want to be incrementally better, be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better, be collaborative.” -Unknown
Questions moving forward -
What is your relationship with competition? What is your relationship with collaboration?
How can we be curious about the roles that competition and collaboration have played in our own view of current situations?
What role does competition or collaboration play in creating desired outcomes?
What role does competition play in overwhelming pressure? What can we discover about ourselves when we consider if we are competing with someone instead of being our best?
What structures can we put in place to strengthen collaboration for ourselves and our teams?
What would you do differently right now if you set aside competition?
How would you manage this situation differently if you knew there was enough for everyone? If you knew you had 100% change for success
Desmond, Adrian (2004). Charles Robert Darwin. Britannica Encyclopedia
The Guardian, June 2015 “Cambridge’s Suicide Sunday Campaign & The Deeper Pscychology of Suicide”. Extracted from URL of Magazine’s website.
Kappel, Mike (October 19, 2016). How to Deal with Competition in Business. Forbes.
Extracted from URL of Magazine’s website.
Hayashi, Shawn Kent (September 2017) Competition Or Collaboration: Which Will Help Your Team Produce The Best Results? Forbes. Extracted from URL of magazine’s website.
Jackson, Rob (2019). Team Building Theories: Competition or Collaboration? Magnovo Training Group
London School of Economics (2018). Competition and Growth: The role of a competition agency. Office of Fair Trading.
Whal, Daniel (2017). Evolution shows Collaboration. Uplift.
Williams, Emma (October 2019) Healthcare Collaboration Microsoft 365. Extracted from URL.