Win-Win, Win-Lose, Which One Would You Choose?

Column by Elena Yang

In today’s space, I’d like to go a bit deeper on competition, a sub-heading from the previous summary of The Knowing-Doing Gap. 

This is a concept most Americans embrace without question; it is so taken for granted in this society that most may even consider it as part of human nature. 

But there are many other cultures that emphasize cooperation much more (and therefore feel cooperation is natural), enough so that the notion that competition is part of human nature is suspect. 

Perhaps a more pertinent framework is to understand when and where to promote competition.   

Research has shown that by and large, competition within an organization, while benefitting a few individuals, is unhealthy for overall organizational performance. 

However, between organizations, competition can serve as a catalyst for better performance. A further distinction can be made on the basis of the nature of the task: Competition can foster higher efficiency for routine tasks within an organization, but should not be the driver for work that is intellectual, innovative, and creative.

We see evidence of internal organizational competitions everywhere: “employee of the month,” sometimes with the best parking space reserved; ranking employees on forced performance curve, ranking units with “winners” and “losers;” awarding bonuses to only certain people who “won” some accolades. 

The list goes on. And they are all, ALL, based on zero-sum games. Such an approach might inspire and motivate a few people, especially those who eventually “win,” but the “costs” for those who don’t win can be enormous. 

These costs include lower morale for the majority who lose, jealousy and bickering that can bring down overall productivity, turf struggles, etc. What’s more, remember, winning isn’t the same as succeeding; one person’s reward does not translate into a good product that wins customers and customers’ loyalty. 

At LANL, winning has become accepted as “compliance,” – at least for management – is it really a measure for scientific achievement?!

I call the thinking behind competition typical of scarcity mode. 

This following example comes from the book “The Knowing-Doing Gap” that I summarized previously. As the computer applications were growing in complexity, to the point where one person alone could not grasp it all, Microsoft tried to emphasize the importance of teamwork. 

So, the company advocated sharing information, learning from each other, and working together. Yet, it failed to implement what it preached; the reward system still favored each individual’s performance. 

People might work hard, but they did not share. And the “forced-curve, zero-sum” salary distribution system meant that helping coworkers to improve productivity may hurt your own raises.

So is it surprising that Microsoft is notorious in releasing bug-laden software?

I am not aware if there have been studies done on Apple’s approach to designing software, but it is widely believed that Apple’s programs are open code and that their products have far less bugs. 

Setting aside the possibility that the growing Apple market share comes with a higher rate of bugs, many experts have argued that as a rule, open system for computer design is more effective than a closed system where proprietary information is heavily guarded.  

An openly cooperative operation is based on abundancy mode.

People who choose, or are forced to operate in, scarcity mode typically carry a more cynical attitude, are guarded about details of their work, and are suspicious of their colleagues’ performance. 

Those who are comfortable with abundancy mode tend to view their environment in a more global manner, by structuring work in ways that can benefit the group, the unit, and the whole organization. 

Recently, I found myself delayed at the airport, by more than one hour. This isn’t rare these days, but what was rather unusual was that this was Southwest Airlines, which for the most part enjoys a reputation for fewer delays than other airlines, and usually with clear reason such as weather conditions. 

At first, we the customers were informed “someone took our airplane!” Later, we finally learned that the plane for another flight had mechanical problems, and the crew made a local decision to use another available plane, ours. 

While that still left some customers a bit miffed, by and large, most of us shrugged off the delay and felt sympathetic with those on “our” plane who might have otherwise had to wait a lot longer. 

Have you ever noticed that you rarely see an idle Southwest airplane on the tarmac? But often see idle planes bearing other airline logos?

Over the years I have heard from many individuals that they are very uncomfortable with external competition; their way of improving themselves is by “competing against” themselves.  

They have some internal yardstick against which to measure their own performance and achievements.  But how does one compose this “yardstick?”  After all, all yardsticks are composites of performance levels accumulated by others.  But these “others” against whom one competes internally are not necessarily – and often aren’t – one’s colleagues or even contemporaries.  So, the individual’s gain, in terms of satisfaction and achievement, is not at others’ expense. 

I contend that competing against colleagues is relatively easier to manage than competing against oneself. When competing against others, once the result is in, your task is done … till the next one. 

But competing against oneself can lead to a never-ending refinement and modification. The extreme case is obsession with “perfection.” How does one distinguish between aiming to be “professional,” “excellent,” and reaching that “perfect/close-to-perfect” product? 

For example, at least in the academic world, if there aren’t deadlines, most of us could spend umpteen hours to finish a research project, or a paper to be published. 

There are always more data to be collected, more time needed to polish models or equations, more rewrites, etc. Many years ago, in collecting data for my dissertation, one of my participants said, “if I can ever design a perfect piece, I may as well die.” 

So, one continuously walks the line between “professional standards,” “good enough,” and “just one more…”

Part of what I am trying to verbalize is that in abundancy mode, everyone improves without making anyone lose; while in scarcity mode, someone always loses, and therefore the whole improves little if at all. 

Even at the inter-organizational level, where competition may work better for the organization, there are limits to its benefits. 

Should the organization become obsessed with the competition, it would neglect its basic goal of achieving something: new product, new service, improvement … for its customers. 

Again, let me stress that winning a competition isn’t necessarily the same as achieving success. Toyota tends to have loyal customers; it’s not necessarily because their cars are cheaper, it’s because they have the reputation for consistently building quality cars. 

One of the key questions in applying the Appreciative Inquiry process is asking the question: What are you good for? This is pertinent for both individuals and organizations. 

The conventional approach of “what are you good at” only aims for skills development. But once an organization ponders what it is good for, there is a higher purpose, which offers room for more people to contribute, and allows people to motivate themselves.

So, next time, I will discuss motivation and competition. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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