Competitiveness: dangerous derailer that must be repressed in the workplace, or the essential motivator of success, even survival?

The business world always seeks that magic bullet – sustainable competitive advantage. Theorists argue that competition both lowers prices and improves products.

But there are those who believe competition may bring out the best in products but the worst in people. And it is particularly harmful if competition is encouraged within as opposed to between companies.

The pendulum swings back and forth among educational experts as much as with business gurus. At one time, all competition was frowned upon because of its supposed long and short term negative effects on the losers. They labelled themselves as failures and this had a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Once a loser – always a loser. So all had to have prizes or no competitions were allowed. No-one ever thought of the benefits to the winners or those talented people who, through lack of feedback, never got a sense of their gifts and hence never exploited or developed them.

So what is competitiveness and where does it come from? Can there be good vs bad competitiveness, or hypo and hyper competitiveness?

The very first experiment in social psychology – the year of Victoria’s diamond jubilee – involved competitiveness. A researcher showed that racing cyclists rode faster when up against another (competitive) racer than when simply riding against the clock. Additionally, just before the war a neo-psychoanalyst worried about the evils of hyper-competitiveness, described as “an indiscriminate need to compete and win (and avoid losing) at any cost as a means to maintain or enhance self-worth”. The idea of the poor competitive soul was that they had poorer self-concepts and more negative interpersonal relationships than co-operative individuals.

Those interested in measuring individual competitiveness have made the distinction between good, healthy competitiveness and its opposite. Good competitiveness is the drive to accomplish a goal, to bring out the best in individuals, indeed help them understand themselves. Bad competitiveness is winning at any cost: it sneers at the outmodish negativity of the old aphorism “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Losing is for wimps and failures. It is the self-aggrandising, other-denigrating factor associated with competition that is bad, but the self-improvement that is good.

“Good competitiveness is the drive to accomplish a goal, to bring out the best in individuals, indeed help them understand themselves.”

It has also been suggested that competitiveness is domain specific. Thus one may be highly competitive on the sports field but not in the family, in the classroom but not at work.

And consider sports. Nearly all are competitive, but some are team based and some individualistic. Some are contact sports, others not. The long distance runner and the boxer certainly appear to have rather different motivations though both seek to win.

Competitive individuals tend to be ambitious, achievement-oriented and dominant. But like everything else, moderation is a good thing. The hyper-competitive individual might be masking all kinds of inadequacies. But so might the hyper-cooperative individual who is unable to make a decision, go at it alone, challenge the group.

Hyper-competitiveness has its down side. It is associated with poor interpersonal relations and incidence of road rage and accidents. On the other hand, competitiveness can bring out the best in people. It can make them go the extra mile, to put in that special effort which can bring about results.

The dilemma for the manager is to encourage optimal competition. We live in an individualistic western culture, the very opposite of the collectivistic eastern culture of most parts of Asia. So from an early age we are placed in houses at school or teams to encourage both inter-group cooperativeness and extra-group competitiveness. The idea is that the one enhances the other.

Sales people thrive on competition; IT people do not. Both need encouragement and stroking. Both need rewarding for productivity. Both need to understand how and when and why in-group cooperation and out-group competition helps the organisation thrive. And there is probably no room for the narcissistic, hyper-competitive, self-doubting pugilist…except perhaps in the ring.

Adrian Furnham, Founder of Applied Behavioural Research Associates Ltd & Thomas advisor