Poor Leaders Promote Competition. Choose a Better Way.
Are You Bringing Out the Best in People?
“Destroying things is much easier than making them,” wrote Suzanne Collins in her prophetic warning against our ongoing desensitization to violence and destruction. Which she cleverly disguised in an incredibly entertaining story.
And she’s right. Destroying things is much easier than making them. As more people seek to make their impact by tearing down others rather than creating work of their own, this fact has never been more obvious. Or more concerning.
But the real danger isn’t on the ease of one behavior over another. It’s that we’re creating environments that encourage and reward that behavior.
And if we’re going to successfully take on the problems we’re facing today, it’s a model that we need to change.
We’re bred for Competition
“All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” — Peter Thiel, Zero to One
Most of us were raised to be competitive.
We’re in sports and we’re rewarded for winning. We’re congratulated on our stats and our performance over competitors.
We go to school and we’re recognized for getting the right answers. We’re rewarded for being the top student and those who can’t keep up are separated out.
We enroll in universities that create an over-abundance of attendees and then thin the herd with scare tactics. Pushing out those who couldn’t meet these new challenges.
And through it all, we’re conditioned to believe that winning means success. Losing means failure. And in this zero-sum game, you’re either doing one or the other. All of which is predicated on individual accomplishments.
Competition is promoted and bred into us throughout our lives. So it’s not surprising that this same culture permeates its way into most companies.
And it’s not surprising that this became the default environment by which I managed my own employees.
After all, what could be more fair? We all start out with a fair shot. The best prevail and we’re stronger for it.
Except I was blind to one inconvenient, yet crucial aspect. When winning is what’s important, one option is to raise your performance. Another is to take down your competitors.
And we both know which one’s easier.
Measure what’s Important. Not what’s Convenient.
“Cooperation is the thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there.” — Virginia Burden
Years ago, I started working with another manager. She started as my peer, eventually became my boss, and through it all taught me more lessons in both leadership and life than I could write about in a year.
And while I was too inexperienced to see the impact that my management style had on my group, she wasn’t.
But instead of giving me a lecture or calling me an idiot, one day she just asked me, “Are you measuring your people on what’s really important?”
I don’t remember my exact response, but I’ll bet it was something along the lines of, “Yeah. Well…what do you mean?”
And I distinctly remember her saying, “Would you prefer the group is successful or one person is successful? And which one do you think you’re encouraging?”
In my zeal for competition, I was prioritizing individual accomplishments. Success meant outperforming the person next to you. Which didn’t necessarily translate into the most value to the team.
In most instances, it actually meant the opposite.
Watch Out for Super Chickens
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller
In the 1990s, Dr. William Muir ran an experiment to improve the egg-laying productivity in chickens by selectively breeding the top egg producers.
He selected a normal group of nine hens as a control and allowed them to breed and reproduce over six generations. Then he developed a second group by picking the highest quantity egg producers over each generation. Aka, the super chickens.
At the end of Muir’s exciting study (see what I did there? Exciting? Egg-citing? Ah, forget it), the control group chickens were healthy and producing more eggs than when they started. The super chickens? All but three were dead. They’d pecked the rest to death.
As Margaret Heffernan described it from the TED stage, “the individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.”
Now a common conclusion is that we need to avoid teams full of stars. That if we pull in too many of our top performers they’ll start pecking themselves to death a la a brood of super chickens.
But in-fighting and cynicism run rampant in many companies. And this behavior is rarely limited to their star performers.
It’s a function of the environment. And what behavior is encouraged within it.
When I chose to promote competition through individual accomplishments, I was asking every engineer to be a super chicken. Whether they were a star or a struggling performer, the message was clear: your direct accomplishments will be your measure of success.
And the unintended but obvious-in-hindsight accompanying message said: your coworker’s success is limiting your own.
Given this criteria, what incentive did people have to help out their coworkers? Or make any contribution that would go unseen?
Because it’s often these unseen acts that provide the most value. As Heffernan recounted discussions on this topic with some of the world’s top music producers, they said,
“We have lots of superstars in the music industry, it’s just they don’t last very long. It’s the outstanding collaborators who enjoy the long careers, because bringing out the best in others is how they found the best in themselves.”
The benefit of teams and organizations is in collaboration across diverse knowledge areas. But this only works if we’re creating an environment that encourages that collaboration.
Charles Darwin was Not a Social Darwinist
“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” — Charles Darwin
Darwin never actually used the term “survival of the fittest.” It was coined by Herbert Spencer in a move to justify his notions of racial and social superiority and as a means of continuing to enforce the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Views that have since been discredited many times over.
Yet these same outdated views are prevalent in many of our organizations. We hear companies promote their cutthroat culture as a sign of strength. We read about companies working people into anxiety attacks and breakdowns in some sort of sick survivor competition.
Yet we need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re promoting a culture that is delivering the value we really care about. Are we sacrificing the larger success in our constant push for competition?
Systems in which one person’s success limits another’s will never create strong organizations. They create winners and losers. But they don’t create teams.
If the goal of every organization is to have all winners, how can we do that if our internal competition is creating losers?
Would You Rather Win Games or Championships?
“To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one. You become selfless.” — Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K)
I’m not suggesting we ignore individual performance, that ideal solution for bureaucrats everywhere. But to make sure we’re focusing the team’s energy in the most productive way.
All sports teams offer athletes the opportunity for individual success, but in the best teams, every player looks to support the team’s success before their own.
Adam Grant recently interviewed the Butler basketball team. I’ll always remember in 2011 when my top-seeded Pitt was eliminated early in the NCAA tournament to Butler, an eighth-seed. Butler would go on to play in the NCAA championship for a second year in a row.
And since then, Butler has continued to beat teams with bigger stars and higher rankings. One of their secrets? By constantly encouraging team victories over personal victories.
When Butler recruits players, they only take those that will consistently put the team’s mission before their own. They also reinforce this environment in everything they do, from being accountable for mistakes to having every player as a Captain, encouraging everyone to be a leader on the team.
We’re often critical of athletes who put their own goals before the team, because we know that for the team to succeed, we need every member to prioritize the team’s mission before their own. As Michael Jordan once said,
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
Would you rather have everyone competing for their own glory, or would you rather have everyone looking for how they can best support the organization’s success? Games or championships?
And if it’s the latter, then we need to stop emphasizing the former.
Fight Desensitization at All Opportunities
“‘Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?’ I ask.
‘Oh, not now. Now we’re in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,’ he says. ‘But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.’” — Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay
In The Mission’s podcast, The Woman and the War, it tells the story of Suzanne Collins, author of the underrated Underland Chronicles. Oh yeah, and a little-known series called The Hunger Games where she not only achieved world-wide fame, but improved the depth of our views on the topics of war and violence.
As Chad Grills said it, “Anyone who goes just an inch deep into The Hunger Games will find it’s written by a thinker. Moreover, it’s brimming with ideas that will spark thinking in the reader.”
Collins didn’t sensationalize violence because she recognized the constant danger of desensitizing ourselves to it.
And we find this same danger in our obsession with competition.
When we sensationalize the cutthroat nature of an organization, we fail to see the negative impact it has on overall performance.
When we overly celebrate individual accomplishments, we don’t reinforce the behaviors that best position the company to succeed.
It’s easy to measure time worked or product delivered. It’s easy to promote internal competition. That’s why so many managers do it.
Recognizing the less obvious efforts that lead to a team’s success requires more engagement. It requires connection. All of which is more difficult than just looking at some metrics.
But it’s also much more enjoyable. And much more gratifying. It’s much more fun to be part of a group that all wants to succeed together. It’s a much more rewarding environment when you have a positive stake in everyone’s success.
And if we want to encourage people to perform at their collective best, we don’t really have a choice.
As Margaret Heffernan closed her TED talk on the subject,
“It is only when we accept that everybody has value that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure.”
Recognize What’s Important.
Most people want to be a good person. Most people want to be proud of the impact they’ve had on the world and want to believe that it’s a better place for them having been in it.
But being a good person often takes on a different role given the environment in which we find ourselves. At work, good person becomes good employee. And these definitions are not always equivalent.
If we’re asking people to rack up personal stats in a competitive battle with their coworkers, most people will jump in and play that game.
But if we convince people to pursue a mission that’s greater than their own individual success, they’ll rarely disappoint.
So what are you measuring? What are you recognizing?
And does it promote the individual’s success or the team’s?
Are we encouraging people to push each other down? Or lift each other up?
As the great Mother Theresa once said, “None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”
Encouraging competition, like destruction, is easy. Pushing each other down is easy, it’s lazy. There are few things more difficult yet more gratifying than continuing to lift others up and promote community in the face of adversity.
I’m convinced that this is the antidote to the struggles we face today. And I’m incredibly grateful to one amazing mentor who showed this to me.
Thanks, as always, for reading! Agree? Disagree? Don’t be shy, I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this slightly helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up 👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!