Yang: Let’s Turn Competition Upside Down

By ELENA YANG
Los Alamos

Does competition always have to be against an “opponent?” When a person wants only to beat “the other,” or when a corporation only wants to gain on “the other,” it automatically leads to a win-loss outcome.  Competition is based on deficit thinking.  After the battle is won, then what?

I’ve said it before (see links here and here), and I’ll keep beating the drum: Competition works best when the work involves routine, and the operation has a mechanical nature to it. Hence, competition works well in the sports arena. 

So we use sports metaphors at our own peril:  Where human efforts involve thinking, aim for innovation, or strive for creativity, competition is often counterproductive. It can sap people’s energy, force people to focus on the near-term horizon, or foster a secretive work environment that eviscerates talent.

Furthermore, when we are in a competitive mode, comparing ourselves against another person or entity, we tend to copy the superficial. That won’t get far for the outcomes we desire. 

This is not to argue against learning from others. But if learning is the true purpose, then that process would look profoundly different from what competition would offer. For a starter, one needs to learn how the others think and process. 

When I was teaching undergraduates at Wharton, PowerPoint was gaining popularity. Any self-respecting student of a top-tier business school had to use it to demonstrate that s/he was with it. 

But it made presentations, however flashy, boring after a while. So, one semester, I said something like this, “This is a very competitive environment; no one wants to miss what others are doing.  So, everyone uses PowerPoint for presentation. In such an environment, how do you make sure that your piece stands out?” (The buzz phrase was, of course, “what is your competitive advantage.”) 

For that semester’s final project, group presentation weighted heavily in the final grade. I hoped that some of them heard my words, but was totally unprepared for the outcome. 

All but one group used PowerPoint, and that group used the tool rather tangentially.  Every group went out of its way to engage the audience, to showcase their unique talents. I was utterly moved. The students were well entertained, totally engaged, and they learned a lot through the process and from each other. As a result, I bucked the norm of grading them on a curve; more than half of the members of the class received a well deserved “A.” 

I was really glad that the last classroom teaching of my teaching career ended with a big bang!

We sorely need win-win stories. Do you have some to share? Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com.

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.

 

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