“Competition drives performance”
Being both a millennial and an athlete, I loved and lived this type of thinking. Tell me what the game is, what the rules are, and how to win — then let me loose to show everyone else how it is done.
This modus operandi is one that I operated under for most of my youth, especially throughout high school and college. Competition was everywhere — on the athletic field in the pursuit of eye-popping statistics and recruitment opportunities, in the classroom fighting for class rank and scholarships, and on the social scene by holding the highest position in a club or organization and dating the best-looking girls. I had established a personal system that worked on the notion that to be the best I had to beat the rest.
Stepping into the working world, I was pre-programmed to approach the environment in the exact same way. I was very comfortable with my success model that included me winning and someone else losing.
Early in my professional career, I experienced one of my most poignant humbling experiences. Within my close team of colleagues, we conducted a behavioral survey that assessed our frequently-demonstrated characteristics and the feelings we evoked in others. When the results came back, my “competitiveness” stuck out like a sore thumb, meaning that I frequently gave people the impression that I was trying to “beat” or one-up them.
What’s the issue with that? I, the athlete, the top-dog, being ridiculed for what I perceived as good performance?
Give me a break!
In my view of the world, I thought that competition was linked to progression — socially, professionally, and financially. I knew that I was capable of generating results, often on my own accord. I didn’t care who I had to beat, I just wanted to know the rules and to work my way to the top as fast as possible. In the debrief of the behavioral survey, the detriment of this behavior was brought to my attention. Regarding my competitive streak, I was posed the question, “Is this how you really want others to think of you?” I thought to myself, “I couldn’t care less what they think of me. I plan to beat them regardless.”
Needless to say, the proper amount of reflection had not taken place. I was guilt of continuing in my old habits, however, since then, I have experienced 3 key perspectives which have made me reconsider.
Perspective 1 -
A very poignant lesson came while I was on a study mission in Japan learning the principles of the Toyota Production System. We had the privilege to hear from a former Toyota executive, and during his Question & Answer session, the question was posed, “What has been the biggest challenge of your career?”
His response — “Not doing everything by myself”.
He went on to explain that he was keenly aware that he could do most things “better” than others — faster, cheaper, and with higher quality. He had experienced success with this practice, and he did not shy away from saying that it had lent itself to progression. However, he also spoke of the downfall. This system was not sustainable because, as a leader in a continuously-improving organization, your role is to focus on the development of others. He emphasized the focus on allowing others to learn new skills, and to experience the failures of the learning process. He elaborated, “If you never fail, you’re not doing anything. We learn by doing, by failing… As a leader, if you are not able to do, then you are not able to teach, and if you are not able to teach, you’re not able to develop others.”
Basically, if you’re not ok with teaching others, you’re not able to successfully fulfill the responsibilities of your role.
Perspective 2 –
When describing the goal of purpose-driven organizations, we use the equation:
Value = Worth/Cost
Mathematically, there are 2 ways to increase the amount of value — either by increasing the worth or decreasing the cost. Worth is an external, controlled by the demand of the customer. Our focus in continuous improvement is to control the internal elements of cost.
This thinking applies to not only organizations, but to us as individuals and leaders as well. My realization of this point came from the story of an executive in another global Fortune 500 company. He related how there had been a manager who had gone into the office of his supervisor asking for a raise. The manager said, “I’ve just been promoted and have gone from 100 to 200 people working for me. I would like to have a higher salary”. The supervisor responded and said, “if you have that many more working for you, shouldn’t I be paying you less?
In lean terminology, there is a term for this — servant leadership. It’s not based around the idea of being stuck in a position or anything like that, it’s based around the idea of working “for” others versus them working for you. As the supervisor was trying to make the point, in this fashion, it is only possible to justify giving someone a raise is if you are working for more people than before.
Perspective 3 –
This realization came as I was reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. After finishing the introduction, I felt like Stephen Covey was speaking directly to me. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read -
“A powerful programming agent for young men is athletics, particularly in their high school or college years. Often they develop the basic paradigm that life is a big game, a zero-sum game where some win and some lose. “Winning” is “beating” in the athletic arena.”
Thanks Stephen! This helped me see exactly why I didn’t see the problem of my “Win/Lose” thinking. This is what carried me to success in academics, social arenas, and sports like wrestling and track — success models where individual performance is the name of the game. My perception was that the world worked almost in a natural selection sense — the strongest would survive & thrive and the weak would fade from relevance. I had carried this pattern into my position in the workplace.
As I kept reading in The 7 Habits, I was noticeably struck when I read the line, “Win/Lose is a weak position, based in personal insecurities.” Man, this guy tells it like it is! Thinking deeper, I began to realize the truth behind these insecurities. I recognized my fear of being viewed as insignificant or inept, pre-conditioned through my upbringing which was steeped in competitiveness. I identified my focus on constantly “winning” as a source of validation from people in positions of authority, especially my parents. I also realized that this “Win/Lose” thinking had affected my ability to maintain lasting romantic relationships. In the aftermath of one failed relationship, I even remembered being labelled, “Mr. Business Transaction”.
The reflection was definitely sobering. I continued to identify occasions where I’d been guilty of thinking “me” instead of “we” by acting in a way that led to the most personal benefit. Apparently, the only person who couldn’t sense the effect of my ulterior motives was me.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” — African proverb
I can’t deny that my competitiveness has brought me a large amount of extrinsic success to this point. However, what I’ve realized is that my motivation was way off. It is not sustainable to act in a manner that is detrimental to those around you. What I once viewed as being “results-focused” I realized had the potential to make me ineffective when it came to leadership and collaboration.
As I’ve started to do more development work, I’ve formed a relationship with a good friend & mentor who has helped me connect with organizations in west Africa. He has always said that his motivation is to live life with high character, to go out & lead, and to care more about people than monetary benefit. One key takeaway I’ve learned from him is this,
“If you add value, wealth will always come.”
As I learn more about Lean philosophy, I love that it comes back to the core principles of Value Creation & Respect for Humanity. Yes, a focus on value creation can mean that you are working competitively. However, the goal is not to compete with others in the hopes that they will lose, it is rather to compete with yourself so that you out-perform who you were yesterday.
This is the true essence of continuous improvement, and it applies to both organizations and individuals. The perspective of Value Creation & Respect for Humanity from an individual viewpoint helps to focus one’s pursuit of progression while being respectful and helpful towards the trajectory of others.
Thinking back to the behavioral survey, I realized that my “independent” thinking was not only limiting my ability to interact with my colleagues, it was limiting my ability to learn from them as well. As a group, we were focused on teaching the principles of lean production to others so that they, in turn, could go out and teach many more. This type of mutualistic relationship is based largely around trust. Trust that the instruction provided was indeed valid and useful along with the trust that the instruction would be utilized in a beneficial and constant manner. If the balance shifted from “win/win” to “win/lose”, it would have an undeniable impact on the effectiveness of the engagement.
Having had these realizations, I continue to focus on developing my own emotional intelligence and empathy. Awareness of a problem is the first step to solving it, and I am grateful that I had the detrimental effect of my competitiveness brought to my attention sooner rather than later. It hasn’t been the easiest pill to swallow, but I wholeheartedly believe it will lead to improved well-being. The journey of my personal development is just beginning, and as we say in many continuous improvement scenarios,
“It may seem simple, but it is not always easy.”