‘But it’s a competitive world!’ I am told again and again. Certainly it is, and a very messy one I should say. Look around. And I should add, ‘It was also once a disease-ridden world and we are curing it.’
—Dorothy De Zouche 1945, teacher

with thanks to Alfie Kohn, who cites an expanded De Zouche quote in the notes for his article, “Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform” (Phi Delta Kappan)

The premise of this post, so beautifully summarized in the above quote, is that competition is an idea whose time is done. And more than an idea, competition as a motivator, and as a lens through which we have been observing and evaluating our world, is not—and perhaps never was—the grand, driving force we have thought it to be.

Competition appears to work as a motivator because it gets people scurrying. Parents can get their children to clean their room if they point to a sibling’s tidier room (although the first few times we try it, we must pointedly add, “Look! Billy’s room is so much cleaner than yours!” Why? Because small children need time to learn from their parents’ cues that it’s not OK that Billy’s room is cleaner). In the workplace, managers can induce an atmosphere of fierce activity by announcing that the person with the most sales will win a cash prize.

Although there have been valuable innovations inspired (at least in part) by someone’s drive to outdo someone else, the truth is that competition is a limited and limiting motivator. All that scurrying isn’t necessarily productive, and if it is, it’s generally short-term — it’ll end abruptly when the contest ends. For monthly or quarterly productivity races, it will spike in the last few days before Award Day and bottom out the rest of the cycle.

What have we been told about competition?

  1. Competition promotes excellence
  2. Competition drives innovation
  3. Only losers criticize competition
  4. Competition is the pillar of capitalism
  5. Competition keeps prices low
  6. Competition is a (or the) biological motivation of all life
  7. Competition is the driving force of evolution
  8. Men are naturally competitive

Who am I to question why scientists — otherwise rightfully cautious of assigning human characteristics to non-human subjects — would think nothing of attributing avarice (for food and sunlight) to plants and animals? For that reason (and for brevity), I’ll leave that part of the list alone.

As for most of the other myths, here’s an excerpt from “No Contest”, an article by Alfie Kohn, the controversial and/or beloved education speaker and writer. Kohn sees a world beyond competition, and he’s got piles of research to back up his assertions:

David and Roger Johnson, professors of education at the University of Minnesota, have performed 26 separate studies to determine whether competition or cooperation is more conducive to learning. The results: cooperation promoted higher achievement in 21 of the studies, while two had mixed results and three found no significant differences.

Alfie Kohn, “No Contest”, INC Magazine, November 1987.

Kohn goes on to demonstrate that instead of innovation and excellence, competition handicaps both children and adults by eroding their self-esteem as they turn their attention to external sources of approval, and by isolating them from each other, since a teammate’s or classmate’s gains represent their own losses in the race for the “prize”.

Motivated by competition, Billy and his sister are now room-cleaning enemies. “Whose room is cleaner! What? Help you with yours?” In the grown-up world, any person on the sales team who might have possessed a helpful inclination would now have to be a saint or a martyr to express it.

But without competition, won’t our creativity vanish? Won’t we lose our motivations for excellence and innovation? Won’t the world market collapse?

In “The Case Against Competition”, Kohn answers:

Most of us were raised to believe that we do our best work when we’re in a race — that without competition we would all become fat, lazy and mediocre. It’s a belief that our society takes on faith. It’s also false.

There is good evidence that productivity in the workplace suffers as a result of competition. The research is even more compelling in classroom settings.

Alfie Kohn, “The Case Agasint Competition”, Working Mother, September 1987.

His suggested remedy is, of course, cooperation, and:

The foundation of cooperation is what social scientists call “positive interdependence”: a cooperative group sinks or swims together. In practice, that means all group members work for the same goal and use the same resources. The result is a shared group identity and a sense of accountability that comes from having others depend on you — a powerful motivator indeed. (In a competitive environment, the only stake others have in your performance is a desire to see you fail.)

Alfie Kohn, “No Contest”, INC Magazine, November 1987.
A far more comprehensive treatment of the topic is available in Kohn’s book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

Pursuing the research for this article (you’re invited to explore my del.icio.us/workinplainenglish/competitionmyth page), I found workplace anecdotes and studies describing good productivity rates turned exceptional with the removal of competitive incentives. To be sustainable, it also required the unraveling of competitive culture, especially when it was extended to management.

In another article, I’ll share a few working examples that will hopefully inspire you to see the world from a different perspective.

Competition is a pair of tinted glasses through which we perceive our surroundings, and then set out to interpret what we have seen. If we were to stop teaching it, if we were to stop using it to manipulate our families, clients, co-workers, employers, employees, target markets and neighbors, the positive changes to our quality of life would be fundamental and pervasive.


2 Responses to The Competition Myth (2)

  1. Penina says:

    Thanks Kelly,

    As usual, you give me TONS to think about!

    I think, as with your project, new ways of doing business and otherwise interacting are emerging now. Creative Commons and open source software are two more examples.

    I look back on this article and wonder if I spent too much time validating my point, and not enough time dreaming of the possibilities!

  2. Kelly Evans says:

    This is very valuable. Questioning foundational assumptions (like that competition is the sine quo non of group dynamics, productivity, evolution) allows for the possibility of opening the “doors of perception.” If this core assumption evaporates, or significantly morphs, upon close inspection and analysis, it is possible that problems that seemed intractable will suddenly become soluble. Most people simply never examine the core assumption, and apply all analytical faculties to problems and issues arising from the assumption.

    Competition is a restricting, contractive force; cooperation is expansive. Competition forces competitors into rule based tracks. So for instance, you could compete in basketball against other basketball players. Cooperation allows for innumerable tracks, and has always existed, and been the context in which competition takes place. Humans have been trained to focus on the basketball game. Meanwhile, the game takes place within a cooperative framework: venue, media, publicity, fans, infrastructure of roads and transport, etc. So even the fan who is focusing on the game is part of a cooperative ecology in which the competitive object of their attention is playing out.

    It is interesting to contemplate what sort of differences would result from a shift of attention from competitive tracks to cooperative context. How would this change business, scientific progress, social relationships? My guess is that social relationships and identities suffer from people trying to compete for limited numbers of perceived acceptable social roles.

    I would like to see (and am trying to create the web based platform to promote) a creative effloresence, in which innumerable types could develop. The more the better, the more various and unique we are, the more we will develop our collective richness. It will be like a world with a million countries to travel to, instead of a few hundred…and each country more different from the next than even the most exotic of today. Xenophobes would not like it.

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