For Maximum Corporate Performance: Eliminate Internal Competition

We all lined up in front of the whiteboard to so that our coach, André, could explain the workout of the day, which is called a “WOD” in CrossFit. On this day, the metabolic conditioning part of the workout, called the “metcon,” was meant to be completed with a partner. The metcon, to be completed as quickly as possible, was as follows:

  • 150 calories of cycling
  • 100 squat cleans
  • 100 deadlifts
  • 800 meter run

A squat clean is when you pull the olympic lifting bar, loaded with weight plates, from the floor to a position resting on the hands above and in front of the shoulders, while at the same time dropping into a squat. A deadlift is when you lift the bar from the ground to a position in front of the hips by standing straight up from a hinged-at-the-hips position.

Each of the four main parts of the metcon listed above was to be completed before moving to another one, but they could be completed in any order, and the repetitions (reps) or calories could be broken up between the two partners in any way we chose. Breaking from that pattern, the 400 meter run was to be performed by both partners at the same time.

I chose to work with Tom, a nurse coordinator, because he looked like he was of comparable size and strength to me. We agreed on placing the clunky Assault bike in the sun and that we would do the deadlifts last, after the 400 meter run. We also spent some time choosing a set of weight plates for our barbell that we were both comfortable with lifting that many times.

As we walked to the bike, I said to Tom, “How about we take turns on the bike and just go for as long as we want and then switch, not keeping track of how many calories each of us is doing?”

Tom responded, “Okay,” but then revealed that he had apparently not been able to fully take-in what I had just suggested, adding, “and let’s also take turns doing ten to fifteen calories each.”

I understand the value of having a pacing plan, that by having pre-decided work and rest periods it’s possible to maintain a consistent output even when exhaustion begins to take hold. This kind of planning is one of the skills we learn in completing solo CrossFit workouts. And in this style of partner workout, the one who is active is not only controlling how long they’re working for but, assuming that each partner only rests while the other is working, they’re also implicitly controlling how long their partner is resting for. So pacing relies on interdependence in a way that requires dynamically balancing the work and rest needs of the two partners.

However, my sense was that, even if only unconsciously, a significant driving factor in Tom wanting to set the pace up-front may have been an ingrained desire to ensure “fairness,” a force that we are all continually yielding to.

The goal of the workout was to complete it as quickly as possible, not to make sure that we both did the same amount of work or rested for the same amount of time. If one of the partners happened to be significantly fitter than the other, then “success” on this particular workout might have been achieved by that partner doing a lot more of the work. Alternatively, success might have been maximized by one of us doing more than half of the work on one exercise and less than half of the work on another.

When we got to the squat cleans, Tom completed ten and told me “ten.”

Then on my turn, I increased the count to twenty, and yelled “twenty” as I stepped away from the bar.

“You did twenty?” he asked me in a surprised tone.

I responded, “No, we’re at twenty,” thinking that it didn’t matter how many I had done; it only mattered how far we had got towards completing our goal. Throughout the rest of the workout, I called out the totals at the transition points.

In hindsight, I realize that I could have invested more effort into trying to convey this spirit of collaboration, this sense that our two bodies and brains were one organism striving for a goal. This idea that there was no competition between us, and therefore no need to ensure fairness. Perhaps this desire to explicate that concept is what is driving me to write this article.

The idea that it’s not fair if one person does more work than the other also suggests that work is some kind of negative thing that should be avoided. This creates an implicit bias against work, which will inevitably lead to overall lower performance as the focus is on avoiding work. But, as any retired person will tell you, rest is not better than work. Both work and rest make us stronger, or at least maintain our strength, and both are needed to different degrees by different people at different times. Work and rest compliment each other and neither is even possible without the other. As individuals, we live in a dynamic homeostatic balance between work and rest. Effective teams also exist and thrive in this kind of continually reconfiguring synergy.

When the team sees itself as one organism, there is no sense of the parts being distinct and competing with each other for resources. There is a natural feeling that I am part of something larger than myself and I am intrinsically motivated to harmoniously contribute in the most effective way.

I started doing CrossFit seven years ago. There have been periods during which I have trained more than five times per week, sometimes twice per day. By doing this, I have attained extremely high levels of fitness. Being naturally highly outcome-oriented and wanting to continually learn and grow, I have prided myself in posting competitive scores on the whiteboard at my CrossFit gym, known as a “box,” alongside my fellow athletes. However, as I’ve matured, both in this sport and as a human in general, I’ve come to realize that driving myself so hard to be the best does not necessarily lead to the most satisfying outcome for anyone.

I have injured myself several times from pushing too hard, which has led to me not being able to train for a while and to gains being lost. I have also found that slowing down on a run so that I can pace and encourage someone who is slower and less fit than me can be much more satisfying than “winning.” Ultimately, we’re all racing to our graves, and what good is it to be the most successful person in the cemetery. Winning at the game of life seems to have very little to do with personal success and more to do with deeply engaging with the process and being in harmony with the whole.

This example of teamwork in CrossFit has led me to think more deeply about how we motivate and compensate people in business organizations. When we think of employees as individuals, as separate parts, and as we assess their individual productivity or contribution in a way that separates them from the whole, we necessarily miss how organizations fundamentally work.

The point of companies is to bring individuals together to accomplish something that they could not on their own. Those individuals become part of a complex interconnected system, striving for a mutually satisfying outcome. The very process of evaluating individuals relative to each other, as is so common in companies, asserts that individual performance is what matters most. This perversely incentivizes internal competition, and to myriad behaviors that thwart the goals of the business and make it less competitive externally.

I have worked at companies that rate their employees relative to each other, and I have been rated in the top 10% of employees, as a “top performer.” At those times, I have felt both scared of losing that position, fear that undoubtedly reduced my ability to enjoy being part of the organization, and I have also felt bad that my “success” was at the expense of those around me. Because performance had to be fitted to a distribution, someone who was probably busting their ass for the company had to be given less-than-stellar quantitative feedback, feedback that might negatively effect their compensation and promotion prospects.

Those who are unable or unwilling to play the game of self-promotion and internal competition, those who favor doing what’s right for the company over their own personal success, can end up being ignored or even shunned. These outstanding, quiet contributors often end up leaving highly internally competitive organizations.

I’m not advocating an “everyone gets a trophy” mentality to leadership. I’m advocating allowing people to contribute to the success of the organization in the best way they can, and to recognize and appreciate them for that. It’s not possible to do that with simple one-dimensional ranking systems. You can’t do it effectively by measuring lines-of-code-written, or on git checkins, or number of emails sent.

It’s not even necessary to rank people. I’m an advocate of nuanced management, where managers come to understand and appreciate the unique contributions, including soft contributions, of all the people in an organization. Consider the following imaginary organization. John advocates strongly for quality, for doing work more slowly and carefully, so that it must be done only once; as opposed to being riddled with bugs and done over again and again. Sally is aware of risks in the future and advocates for the application of effort now to mitigate them; she’s a rare fire-marshal rather than a much more common fire-fighter (or even fire-starter). Jack is great at coordinating between departments and getting consensus. Kim encourages, supports, and inspires others. Bill is just plain fun to work with. Each person in an adaptive organization, when given support and encouragement and the freedom and safety to play, will find their natural groove and rhythm; they will naturally and autonomously optimize into a mode of contribution that maximizes the positive outcomes of the company.

In contrast, when there are perverse incentives for internal competition, for political behavior, for back-stabbing, for climbing other others, for taking credit for the work of others, for discouraging (or not encouraging) others, and for not leveraging the work of others, then all the energy of the organization will be channeled into those behaviors. Some will play the game for what seems like their own personal benefit while missing the opportunity to contribute in a healthy and effective way. Some will refuse to play the game out of principle and apparently fail to thrive in the organization while silently and thanklessly propping it up. Others will be unnecessarily disturbed and distracted by the dysfunction. All will suffer; all will lose.

So what’s the solution? How do we build adaptive and functional organizations in which we don’t pit members against each other? We have to start with a holistic view of the organization, seeing it as a single organism. We have to begin with the assumption that for the most part we can thrive with the people just as they are. If the organism has tumors, in the form of assholes, then they should be removed immediately, as I wrote about in Deadlines Are Killing Us, And Almost Everything Else I Know About Leadership. Then we must remove all incentives for internal competition and we must instill a sense of trust and ownership. We give employees financial ownership in the company through stock incentives. We give employees emotional identification with the products of their work through autonomy. Someone who has been responsible for creating something beyond himself or herself will protect and defend it. Ownership by an adaptive team is even more powerful.

If we want sustained, committed engagement from employees then we need to build a level of trust and communication with them that resembles what would be found in a family. Families embody a level of unconditional commitment which can be instructive. A father almost never says to his son, “Little Johnny, we love you, but unless you get your math scores up we’re going to have to put you out on the street.” No, there’s an inherent commitment to help Johnny to maximize his potential, to thrive, and to contribute synergistically. Sure, he can go through rough times, and the rest of the family will support and encourage him and help him get back on his feet. When he does succeed, he will be loyal for life, not only because this is his family but because his family supported him.

But corporations are not families, even if we would like them to be. They are legal entities through which resources, including human resources, are purchased, created, and orchestrated in the production of marketable added value that is sold to generate profit to both perpetuate the corporation and to deliver return-on-investment to its owners, the shareholders. That cold, heartless description might sound like I swallowed an MBA, and it might be logically true, but it’s a perspective that misses the central and most important aspect of most businesses: a company’s most valuable asset is its employees.

The question is how do we make a business that really thrives, that not only makes oodles of money for it’s owner-employees (and anyone else who wants to invest) but also improves the lives of everyone involved, nourishing them, educating them, literally feeding them, and helping them to heal and grow both psychologically and physically. What we really want is to be a part of a tribe. Then when we “assess” our employees, there is one primary question that must be asked: does this person want to be part of this tribe? If the answer is no, then we let them go; if the answer is yes, then we encourage them to stay.

To take business to the next level, we really need to shift our perspective on how we view teamwork, collaboration, and contribution, from an individual perspective to a more collective perspective.