The case of Floyd Landis, plus the earlier doping scandals bedeviling the Tour de France, ought to make us all think again about the true impact of competition. Sport (together with warfare) is one of the commonest sources of ideas about business, so when the world of sport seems to be in trouble, it’s worth asking what is going wrong, and whether it might reveal anything relevant to the business world as well.

Like sport, the world of business is full of competition. We’re often told that competition is good for the health of the economy and the pockets of consumers. Laws exist to prevent cartels and other means of circumventing competition between businesses. Creating a sense of a contest is sometimes held up as the best way to motivate people, via the use of incentives and open competition for bonuses and promotions. It seems that more and more leaders are turning excellence at work into a contest between employees: a bitter rivalry where my success (and bonus payments) arise mostly because you have “failed” to outdo me and claim any share in a limited pool of rewards or recognition.

In many corporations today, every activity is turned into a contest like this, where winning is more than a happy result of hard work and talent: it is the only acceptable outcome. Select groups of “high-fliers”—assumed or potential winners—are given special training and privileges. The rest are dismissed as “ordinary:” a necessary, but unfortunate, group who are tolerated merely to support the high-fliers and provide the necessary contrast.

That’s because winners cannot exist without losers, just as light cannot exist without darkness to reveal it. One of the paradoxes of organizations that encourage the cult of the winner is that they must inevitably increase the number and impact of losers in direct proportion. Every winner needs one or more losers to beat. And since to win grandly, which is the desire of most champions, demands that you overcome a host of competitors, one winner typically needs multiple losers. For every person on the winner’s podium, there must be six, or ten, or a dozen, or even more people who are now seen as “losers,” with all the feelings that public failure brings.

The problem with competition as a way of managing people is not that it encourages a few to excel. It’s the accompanying requirement that forces so many others to be labeled inadequate. The more winning is praised and rewarded, the more failure becomes a badge of shame and disgrace. That’s why so many competitors in sports today take the enormous risks of turning to performance-enhancing drugs, although they fully understand the risks and the continual efforts of the authorities to catch those who cheat. Failure is too common and too hard to bear.

Excessive competition forces those obsessed with winning into dishonest actions, if that seems the only way to come out on top. When the winners also heap scorn on those they beat, which was common in cultures like Enron, they are more likely to produce hatred and lust for revenge than any healthy desire for emulation. Many so-called “losers” give up the struggle to do better, convinced that they cannot match the exaggerated demands of continual victory. Others become resentful and sullen. It isn’t uncommon to find organizations where the “them” versus “us” atmosphere is entirely internal: between those few who believe they have made it into the winners enclosure and all the rest.

Competition is healthiest when it is against an attainable standard, or against your own previous best. In such cases, there can be any number of winners, each one aiming for a level of excellence that is within their capabilities. But when it becomes mere rivalry—where victory consists only of the debasing and trivial pleasure of beating someone else—it is unlikely to produce anything but negative results. Far from being a panacea for business ills, increasing competition and focusing on the winners in that way is a sure route to a poisonous atmosphere, greatly enhancing the likelihood of dishonest, mean, vengeful, and egotistical behavior.

When an organization claims “all our people need to be above average,” it is not just fooling itself and revealing statistical illiteracy; it is preparing the ground for a culture where keeping up with the Joneses is replaced by beating the bejesus out of the Joneses and everyone else for the egotistical joy of public display. The real competitors in business are other organizations seeking to sell into the same market. If employees are more interested in competing against their own colleagues, because that is what the organization is requiring them to do, how much time and energy will they have left for anything else?

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership. He also posts at The Coyote Within.

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