Competitive Obsession

Competitive Obsession

“The hidden killer that’s destroying your company”

Marc Gilenson

The competitive obsession we experience today began with our competition and obsession with our colonial masters. It dates way back to the 1700’s at least, when our young country’s fortunate circumstances…vast territory, abundant natural resources, and a spirit born from having freed itself from colonial masters, created what is today’s corporate culture. As with today, people who were fortunate enough to take advantage of these circumstances, had to still feel superior to other people of color.  This manifested itself in the horrific practice of enslaving human beings. The idea that Corporate America is unique among companies has obviously been around for a long time, however, the concept of competitive obsession has been around since much earlier times.

It’s a primal trait

For most people, there is something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition. This may be due to the thought that “competitiveness” is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.  If people in the early history of humankind were not competitive, they would not have lived long enough to reproduce. Based on evolutionary processes, this means that today, the competitive gene is prevalent in our society. 

The evolutionary pressure toward competitiveness manifests itself in our day-to-day life with the way that we approach challenges and competitions.  Our need and desire to win is what makes us feel happy.  This is because we psychologically feel rewarded when we win. The feeling that we won, and another person or group has lost is acknowledged publicly by the group.  This can be through the receiving of awards, congratulatory verbiage, promotions, Presidents clubs, stack rankings, bonuses and maybe even high fives!  It’s also why we feel angry or disappointed when we lose.  We feel psychologically punished if we lose.  The feeling that we lost and another person or group has won, and is acknowledged publicly by the group, just feeds their ego! Through the rewarding of the winners, we are publicly identified as the loser.  It can also mean lost opportunity, job loss, less acceptance of future ideas or process improvements, and lack of credibility.

Because our competitive obsessive culture endorses winning, we see many examples of winners reaping benefits, and losers losing respect from their team members and management. This affects us, consciously and unconsciously, which creates many issues for the companies we are employed by.

Competitiveness Is Not The Same As A Desire To Win

There is a way to differentiate a person’s competitiveness from a person’s need to win.  There is the need to perform well, there is a preference to accomplish difficult tasks, and then there is the simple need to win.

The correlations indicate that people with a strong need to win have poorer coping skills when compared with people who like to perform well or like to accomplish difficult tasks.

People with the strong need to win tend to engage in denial, and become behaviorally and mentally disengaged when stressed.  This leads to “fingerpointerosis,” lack of teamwork, sub-optimized P&L’s and the creation of the 80/20 rule in a negative way.

These “win at all cost” employees (it’s not just executives) tend to see the other departments and processes that protect the company as hostile (e.g., “it is a dog-eat-dog world”).  They believe it’s all about them, that skill is fixed (they have it and others don’t), and that the route to success comes from appearance and playing the game better than others. They feel that success and winning is a zero-sum game…they win, you lose.  It causes them to embarrass and put down others, ignore teammates input, as well as mocking process improvements.  It causes others not to share corporate wisdom and innovative ideas that will set our companies ahead of others.

Much has been documented in the world of occupational psychology about people with a need to win.  Research shows that they tend to have poorer self-esteem and tend to be less positive than people who like to perform well and overcome difficult tasks.  These results are consistent with the idea that employees with a need to win tend to have a self-centered orientation, whereas people who like to perform well and who like difficult tasks tend to have a mutual benefit orientation.

But…Competitions Are Fun!!

Competitions are fun if you win. Throughout history, people have enjoyed organizing competition, from the ancient Greek Olympic Games (going back as far as 776 BC) to American Football. But the benefits do not last if based on personal incentive only.

A “competition” by its very nature, is based on an “extrinsic incentive.” This means that the motivation to adopt a behavior or decision is based on getting rewarded for it. A fundamental flaw of nearly all extrinsic incentives is that they only tend to work for as long as the incentive is maintained.  In many situations, the competition is won at the expense of others, therefore, corporations across America are finding it difficult to implement positive process improvements.

Competitive Obsession is a dangerous foe

There is an abundance of research that shows how the need to be rewarded with external incentives leaves no room (“crowd out”) and undermines an employee’s motivation to embrace a mutual benefit culture. Crowding occurs when the personal gain is rationalized as helping the whole, but does just the opposite. This is the concept of negative goal replacement; the achievement of temporary goals and waiting to get the next external reward.

Competitive Obsession Meets Mutual Benefit

The opposite of extrinsic is what we call “intrinsic” motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something, such as helping others, improving a process, closing a deal, etc., we don’t always do it for a reward, we do it because we are convinced that it’s the right thing to do. By “right,” I do not refer to vague cultural conceptions, rather based on a mutual benefit culture as an evolved culture amongst corporate entrepreneurs.

It has been shown that the ability for employees to be compassionate, to empathize with others and to care about the success of the company, are evolutionarily adaptive behavioral traits that are beginning to show up more and more. A psychological concept known as the “helpers high” reinforces how a mutual benefit culture helps people feel good both psychologically as well as physically.  A mutual benefit culture stimulates a helping behavior that releases the “feel good” neurotransmitters such as oxytocin.  Corporate entrepreneurs refer to this as the corporate entrepreneurial spirit.

History also shows that humans not only survived by competing, but perhaps more importantly, we survived by cooperating with one another.  We need to do the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time.  That time is now!

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