Much has been debated about the pros and cons of competition, especially with regard to its effects on children. Some critics claim competition undermines a young person’s ability to develop healthy self-esteem, become successful in life and achieve everything he or she can. Proponents of competitive activities like organized sports, on the other hand, claim healthy competition can spark accomplishment, give kids a sense of mastery and teach valuable life lessons.
In the business arena, there’s less of a divide — probably because the discussion is dictated more by economics than emotion. Given the fact that market competition is unavoidable, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that most of us in this country not only think of competition as advantageous, we actually like it.
In an Oxford Journalsarticle on the pluses and minuses of competition, professor Maurice Stucke of the University of Tennessee College of Law provided some statistics about our affinity for it. He cited a 2010 telephone opinion interview conducted at the request of the European Commission. The survey on entrepreneurship in the European Union and beyond showed U.S. respondents (77 to 82 percent) were significantly more likely than their European (55 to 65 percent) and Chinese counterparts (65 to 69 percent) to admit they were risk-takers and enjoyed competing.
He also noted that our American penchant for business competition is collective and institutionalized, running deep within our national DNA. For example, Stucke observed that the U.S. Supreme Court has praised “faith in the value of competition” as “the heart of national economic policy,”calling it “the best method of allocating resources in a free market.”
Our economy depends on market competition to generate lower costs and prices, yield a greater variety of goods and services, enhance efficiency and productivity, and support favorable living standards. Sometimes, however, when the going gets tough, we tend to lose some of our unbridled affection for competition. If our organizational self-esteem (or bottom line) gets a bit battered and bruised out on the playing field, we shift our focus from thriving to surviving.
We start avoiding the demands, challenges and occasional defeats of competition, preferring the safety of the status quo. Long-term goals get replaced with short-term performance, and focus on the future gets pushed aside for myopic concentration on the latest stock market report. Investment in innovation is limited to low-risk opportunities related to efficiency and cost-reduction rather than value-added game changers.
But one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Spring CLO Symposium reminded me that times like these are exactly when we should be embracing high-risk, high-reward opportunities. Award-winning journalist Ashley Merryman, co-author of “Top Dog,” which explores the science of competition, put it simply and succinctly: “The benefit of competition is improvement.”
Think about it. What better time to be focused on improvement, innovation, invention and initiative than when we need times to get better? If we truly hope to turn things around, we have to start thinking more like worthy competitors and less like weary survivors.
Of course, if the benefit of competition is improvement, learning is the engine that drives it. There can be no improvement without new knowledge, skills, capabilities and understanding. In today’s global economy, strategic workforce development is not merely a way to increase productivity and reduce costs. When integrated with progressive talent management, purposeful succession planning and a supportive enterprise-wide culture of learning, it’s a powerful source of game-changing creativity and competitive advantage.
Merryman and her co-author Po Bronson make another simple and succinct point in their book. Competition facilitates creative output by supplying motivational drive. It is the learning organization’s destiny to motivate everyone to pursue learning, embrace competition and strive for continuous improvement.
Let me know if you agree or disagree. My self-esteem can take it.
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