Nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition?

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Marks, set, go!
Marks, set, go!

Recently I have had to review a long-held belief.

Ever since I was a boy I’ve believed in competition and trying to win. I would shout at the television if I thought that footballers or tennis players weren’t trying hard enough and I became disillusioned when the various school sports teams I played in endured a losing streak.

Later as an adult I carried this attitude into games I played with my nephews or my daughter believing that “letting them win” was the ultimate way of patronising them and that nothing would be sweeter for them than knowing they’d genuinely beaten an adult at something.

In my early working life I was regularly persuaded that “healthy competition” was the way to motivate individuals and teams to hit their targets and so on, and this is where my thinking became challenged.

Work is not like sport or games. Many people at work are not the remotest bit interested in competition, preferring instead to provide a quality product or  really good service to their customers. When regional sales teams compete against each other who really wins in the end? When individuals in teams compete against each other how does this affect team development in the long term. How can we possibly ever ‘win’ when the game never ends?

In my view the only way we are to prevail in the current climate is to become brilliant at learning. There is so much change these days (and it’s only going to get more and quicker) that only by continually learning (and unlearning) can we hope to contend. Unfortunately, competition can be a great impediment to learning.

Recently I heard a youth team coach from the English Football Association bemoaning the fact that English kids don’t learn the game properly in the way they do in say, Spain or Germany because there is too much focus on winning (or more accurately not losing). Accompanied by parents and so on yelling from the side lines, our kids learn to cope with pressure by playing safe and never being creative or taking a risk.

The same thing can happen at work in the face of inappropriate competition. Staff member turns on staff member, team turns on team and we forget who the real competition is.

The other problem is that too much focus on competition has us always evaluating performance in relative terms, ie we must be doing well because we’re better than them. But what if we measure performance is absolute terms ie how good could we become if we truly fulfilled our potential?

Surely in the end the real competition is with ourselves?
What do you think? Leave me a comment

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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