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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 January 2, 2020

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Over time, we all gather a set of constricting habits around us—ones that trap us in a zone of supposed comfort, well below what our potential would allow us to attain. Pretty soon, such habits slip below the level of our consciousness, but they still determine what we think that we can and cannot do—and what we cannot even bring ourselves to try. As long as you let these habits rule you, you’ll be stuck in a rut.

Like the tiny, soft bodied creatures that build coral reefs, habits start off small and flexible, and end up by building massive barriers of rock all around your mind. Inside the reefs, the water feels quiet and friendly. Outside, you think it’s going to be rough and stormy. There may be sharks. But if you’re to develop in any direction from where you are today, you must go outside that reef of habits that marks the boundaries of your comfort zone. There’s no other way. There’s even nothing specially wrong with those habits as such. They probably worked for you in the past.

But now, it’s time to step over them and go into the wider world of your unused potential. Your fears don’t know what’s going to be out there, so they invent monsters and scary beasts to keep you inside.

Nobody’s born with an instruction manual for life. Despite all the helpful advice from parents, teachers and elders, each of us must make our own way in the world, doing the best we can and quite often getting things wrong.

Messing up a few times isn’t that big a deal. But if you get scared and try to avoid all mistakes by sticking with just a few “tried and true” behaviors, you’ll miss out on most opportunities as well.

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Lots of people who suffer from boredom at work are doing it to themselves. They’re bored and frustrated because that’s what their choices have caused them to be. They’re stuck in ruts they’ve dug for themselves while trying to avoid making mistakes and taking risks. People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.

It’s time to pin down the habits that have become unconscious and are running your life for you, and get rid of them. Here’s how to do it:

1. Understand the Truth about Your Habits

They always represent past successes. You have formed habitual, automatic behaviors because you once dealt with something successfully, tried the same response next time, and found it worked again. That’s how habits grow and why they feel so useful.

To get away from what’s causing your unhappiness and workplace blues, you must give up on many of your most fondly held (and formerly successful) habits. and try new ways of thinking and acting. There truly isn’t any alternative. Those habits are going to block you from finding new and creative ideas. No new ideas, no learning. No learning, no access to successful change.

2. Do Something—Almost Anything—Differently and See What Happens

Even the most successful habits eventually lose their usefulness as events change the world and fresh responses are called for. Yet we cling on to them long after their benefit has gone.

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Past strategies are bound to fail sometime. Letting them become automatic habits that take the controls is a sure road to self-inflicted harm.

3. Take Some Time out and Have a Detailed Look at Yourself—With No Holds Barred

Discovering your unconscious habits can be tough. For a start, they’re unconscious, right? Then they fight back.

Ask anyone who has ever given up smoking if habits are tough to break. You’ve got used to them—and they’re at least as addictive as nicotine or crack cocaine.

4. Be Who You Are

It’s easy to assume that you always have to fit in to get on in the world; that you must conform to be liked and respected by others or face exclusion. Because most people want to please, they try to become what they believe others expect, even if it means forcing themselves to be the kind of person they aren’t, deep down.

You need to start by putting yourself first. You’re unique. We’re all unique, so saying this doesn’t suggest that you’re better than others or deserve more than they do.

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You need to put yourself first because no one else has as much interest in your life as you do; and because if you don’t, no one else will. Putting others second means giving them their due respect, not ignoring them totally.

Keeping up a self-image can be a burden. Hanging on to an inflated, unrealistic one is a curse. Give yourself a break.

5. Slow Down and Let Go

Most of us want to think of ourselves as good, kind, intelligent and caring people. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.

Reality is complex. We can’t function at all without constant input and support from other people.

Everything we have, everything we’ve learned, came to us through someone else’s hands. At our best, we pass on this borrowed existence to others, enhanced by our contribution. At our worst, we waste and squander it.

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So recognize that you’re a rich mixture of thoughts and feelings that come and go, some useful, some not. There’s no need to keep up a façade; no need to pretend; no need to fear of what you know to be true.

When you face your own truth, you’ll find it’s an enormous relief. If you’re maybe not as wonderful as you’d like to be, you aren’t nearly as bad as you fear either.

The truth really does set you free; free to work on being better and to forgive yourself for being human; free to express your gratitude to others and recognize what you owe them; free to acknowledge your feelings without letting them dominate your life. Above all, you’ll be free to understand the truth of living: that much of what happens to you is no more than chance. It can’t be avoided and is not your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it.

Final Thoughts

What is holding you in situations and actions that no longer work for you often isn’t inertia or procrastination. It’s the power of habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about events. Until you can let go of those old, worn-out habits, they’ll continue to hold you prisoner.

To stay in your comfort zone through mere habit, or—worse still—to stay there because of irrational fears of what may lie outside, will condemn you to a life of frustration and regret.

If you can accept the truth about the world and yourself, change whatever is holding you back, and get on with a fresh view on life, you’ll find that single action lets you open the door of your self-imposed prison and walk free. There’s a marvelous world out there. You’ll see, if you try it!

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Featured photo credit: teigan rodger via unsplash.com

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