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Competition Re-visited

Competition Re-visited

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

 

Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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