Don't Kill the Competition
Or, why competition is good, and how to keep it from going bad
We rarely work in a vacuum. Whether building things or providing services, there's another team out there that's doing something similar. And this team threatens to capture some of our territory or prevent us from achieving a goal. Naturally, a sense of opposition develops, an us vs. them attitude. Sometimes this is healthy, and sometimes it is not. Here are four mentalities of opposition, four different categories that describe the attitude one team has for another. They range from healthy to dangerous.
Note that I am not claiming that cooperation is bad, unnecessary, or of secondary importance. On the contrary, it is vital. However, not all of our relationships are cooperative relationships, and in this post I am focusing on those.
Competition is a mild form of opposition, and one that is not only healthy, but apparently buried deep within our psyche. The shows we watch on TV, the sports we play, our political systems... we surround ourselves with competition. Observing competition is a leisure activity. We enjoy it.
We compete when we pit the work of multiple teams or individuals against each other for the purpose of determining which is best. This environment encourages us to work harder, prepare better, refine our skills and talents, and stretch our imagination. Competition also gives us goals. We desire to level up.
Competition is healthy and even beneficial.
During competition, we sometimes find another team or two that really stand out as a point of comparison for our own team. Maybe they are the toughest team to compete with. Or maybe they're similar to us in relevant ways (size, goals, demographics...). But for whatever reason, we mark them as special competition.
In doing so, they become a aspirational target for us. We watch them more carefully, and are especially conscientious of their method and strategies. And as we develop our own work, we do so with an explicit comparison to what that team is doing.
Notably, a central characteristic of rivalry is respect. (When respect dissipates, we head toward the next category.) The other team is the team we've picked out because they're a challenge for us.
Perhaps the benefits of rivalry are not as pronounced. Rivalry does seem to be beneficial in small doses, though. Rivalry offers a team a focal point. This is the team to beat, this is the chance to shine. Because rivalry is born out of similarity, to compete with a rival is to compete with our own mental image of who we want to be.
When respect for a rival gives way to disdain, anger, or jealousy, we become adversaries. And once we've crossed this line, things are no longer healthy.
When we take an adversarial stance, we're no longer striving to reach our next level. An adversary is primarily interested in taking down the other team. As a contrast, to beat a rival is to exhibit that you have achieved a new level of excellence. But to beat an adversary is to show dominance over the other.
Adversarial attitudes come bundled with a major problem. In this relationship, damaging the adversary becomes just as compelling as striving to improve ourselves. If the focus of this adversarial relationship is now preventing the other person or team from winning, then our own betterment is no longer the only way to achieve the goal. Causing harm to an opponent is equally effective (and in some cases more so).
The Degenerate Case of Spectator-Adversaries
There is an interesting degenerate case of the adversarial relationship. Sometimes we imagine ourselves to be competing with others, and we think or say things like, "If I had done that...." This is fine. But on occasion, people turn that inward competition into an explicitly external and adversarial competition.
The trivial example is the spectator who angrily shouts her or his way through an entire professional sports game. The spectator has no skin in the game, and couldn't even compete if they were in the game. Yet he or she has no compunction about hurling insults and accusations at the players.
This problem is just as present in conference rooms and online forums, where one person will offer relentless destructive critique, but is not actually a stakeholder in the outcome. Their interest is not improving any outcomes, but in chastising "the opposition."
This is a form of zero-sum adversarial competition based on the faulty premise that to make the adversary look foolish, ignorant, guilty, or stupid is to make oneself "the winner."
For enemies, the adversarial relationship has ramped up to a single-mindedness: "They must be taken down." At this point, the one characteristic that describes the relationship between two parties is animosity.
Once we get to this point, we can't even be in the same room with "the enemy." An interpretational angle takes over: We interpret every action they undertake as having bad intentions. In fact, we often mistakenly interpret every action as somehow being designed to go against us.
In an enemy relationship, we lose our ability to find any good in the opposition. In no sense is this a healthy attitude for the team. Once we've hit this point, the remedy is usually some form of radical reset, like leaving your own team/company/market in order to create distance.
What's the point in analyzing opposition? For me, the answer is personal. I can pinpoint many cases where opposition made me a better person. Unfortunately, I can think of a few instances that sent me the other direction. And I have noticed in myself the tendency to escalate opposition. Coming up with a taxonomy seems like the right first step in a bigger challenge: How do I prevent myself from taking healthy opposition into unhealthy territory.
To acknowledge competition is an effective form of self reflection and motivation. Perhaps even identifying rivals in the marketplace can be good. But entertaining that tendency to let oneself mentally escalate beyond that is a temptation we must learn to avoid.
And on a final note: A team does well when two conditions obtain: (a) they cooperate well within the team, and (b) they compete well against the opposition. Competition within a team can significantly hinder the team from achieving its best.
Thanks to Ellen F. for helping me clarify my ideas, and for pointing out many of the benefits and pitfalls listed here.