You've probably met the sort of chief executive officer who does an uncanny impersonation of Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing." The more competition there is among his staff, he figures, the better for his company.
It's different in your office. You've heard about team building and Theory Z, and you don't go out of your way to promote rivalry. Of course, some of your managers do vie with one another -- for bonuses, perhaps, or power, or your approval. And your sales-people certainly aren't strangers to the race to be number one. But no harm in that, right? Isn't competition a productive force if used in moderation?
I've been studying the subject for the past five years, weighing the research from many different fields to assess the effects of competition. My conclusion is that optimal productivity not only doesn't require competition; it appears to require its absence. The ideal amount of competition in your company is none at all. Your best bet is to discourage any informal competition that may develop, and to go out of your way to design cooperative work groups and incentive systems.
Notice that I'm not just warning against excessive or inappropriate competition. I'm saying competition itself -- which simply means requiring one person or group to fail in order that another can succeed -- is inherently counterproductive. Similarly, I'm not offering a "soft" argument against competition, basing my objection solely on its destructiveness to us as human beings. I'm saying that competition also makes no sense from the perspective of the bottom line. It holds people back from doing their best.
Dean Tjosvold, a professor of business administration at Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, has been turning out one study after another comparing cooperation with competition. "Cooperation makes a work force motivated and entrepreneurial," he concludes, whereas "serious competition undermines coordination."
In one of those studies, completed last spring, 47 managers at a company that distributes and maintains heavy equipment filled out detailed questionnaires. They indicated the extent to which their workplace promoted cooperation or competition, and also how effective they believed their subordinates to be. Meanwhile, 143 of these subordinates were assessing the styles of the managers. When the results were tallied, it turned out that the effectiveness of supervisors and subordinates alike went hand in hand with a cooperative orientation. Effectiveness was also shown to be negatively related to competitiveness.
In another study, this one of managers at an engineering-consulting firm and employees of a utility company, Tjosvold asked for descriptions of significant corporate events -- one success story and one tale of woe. He found a strong correlation between experiences of effectiveness and a perception of cooperation. Likewise, he found "competitive goals were related to ineffective interaction, negative feelings, little progress, and weakened relationships."
One reason that cooperation is associated with better performance is that employees enjoy this arrangement more. When Tjosvold and his colleagues interviewed 310 medical laboratory technicians from 10 different hospitals, once again the results were straightforward. Technicians were satisfied with their jobs and inspired to work hard if their supervisors were judged to value cooperation in the workplace. Those who worked in a competitive atmosphere were dissatisfied and, in many cases, thinking about quitting.
The father of this kind of research is sociologist Peter M. Blau, whose classic 1954 study compared two groups of interviewers at a public employment agency. Those in the first group competed fiercely to fill job openings. In the second, interviewers worked cooperatively, making sure to tell one another whenever a new position opened up. And it was the latter group that filled significantly more jobs.
Blau's thoughts on why this happened are worth noting. In the competitive environment, each agent hoarded job notifications rather than posting them so his or her colleagues could see them. This practice eventually was used defensively and thus became self-perpetuating. The members of the cooperative group, on the other hand, freely exchanged their resources and skills. What's more, they didn't have to worry about the hostility and distrust that competition can breed. "Social cohesion" means better results, Blau concluded.
Then there is the matter of anxiety. Blau and other researchers have found that the pressure produced by having to defeat others -- and risk being defeated -- can interfere significantly with performance. It is true that a small amount of anxiety may be stimulating, but the stress of competition typically has the opposite effect.
One study of college students, conducted by W. J. McKeachie and the late Donald Bruce Haines, found that those who were in competitive discussion groups -- informed that their grade would depend on how their answers compared with others' -- "became more anxious . . . and found themselves losing self-assurance." These students weren't able to cover as many questions as their counterparts, whose grades reflected how well the whole group did.
Such research supports the anecdotal evidence I've gathered while traveling around the country to talk about competition. A salesman in California told me his colleagues were "dropping like flies" when they had to best each other's sales records. As soon as the system was changed to a noncompetitive quota, satisfaction shot up -- and so did sales. An artist in Illinois observed that when he thinks about competing for exhibitions or prizes, he "get[s] all tight" and is unable to paint well. (Indeed, a 1982 study by Brandeis University psychologist Teresa M. Amabile showed that children who competed against one another produced much less creative colleges than those who didn't have to compete.) A Washington, D.C., restaurateur reported that after he eliminated all competition among his employees, he had never seen a group of happier or more productive workers.
But the problem with competition goes beyond the increased anxiety or the inability to share one's talents. Their is also the fact that victory and excellence are simply two very different ideas. They're even experienced differently. To focus on winning, on beating out a colleague, is often to divert attention from the work itself. Getting optimal performance from your managers depends on making sure they find their work satisfying and challenging in its own right -- not on turning their work into a means toward some external goal, such as being number one.
Even when the desire to push oneself to succeed isn't grounded in intrinsic interest -- being in love with the challenge itself -- it doesn't have to come from trying to defeat someone else. It can be based on comparing one's performance with some absolute standard or with how one did last year. It also can be inspired by the gratification of working with others. In any case, competition is at best unnecessary and at worst a serious impediment to quality work.
When that work involves learning skills and absorbing information, competition proves to be particularly unproductive. In 26 separate studies, David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson, professors of education at the University of Minnesota, have weighed the benefits of competitive and cooperative approaches. The results: cooperation promoted higher classroom achievement in 21 of the studies, while 2 had mixed results and 3 found no significant differences.
These studies involved different academic subjects, different ages of students, and different ways of testing how well they had learned. Competition consistently interfered with achievement, but the effect was strongest when the tasks were more challenging. The Johnsons observed that "higher quality cognitive strategies for learning" were used by students working together. Compared with those who competed against one another, they could come up with clever ways to sort information, find solutions, and avoid duplication of effort.
Better performance was not the only advantage of cooperation, the Johnsons found. Freed from the pressure of having to beat one another, students developed higher self-esteem. Their enjoyment of the subject matter increased, and they came to accept one another more readily -- even those with different backgrounds and abilities. These findings, of course, have profound implications for the workplace.
But cooperation means more than just talking a good game. Circulating a memo to remind employees that "we're all in this together" is useless. What's required is to structure cooperation by creating what social scientists call "positive interdependence," where members of a group depend on, and are accountable to, one another. In practice, that means all group members work for the same goal, use the same resources, and receive the same reward. The shared group identity that results is a powerful motivator because one person can succeed only if the others succeed, too. (In an individualistic workplace, other people's success is irrelevant to one's own. In a competitive workplace, the only stake one has in others' performance is a desire to see them fail.)
Keep in mind also what cooperation doesn't mean.
It doesn't mean everyone thinks alike or that no one ever argues. Conflict is both inevitable and desirable; disagreement produces change and challenges mistaken decisions. The question is not whether conflict will exist, but whether it will take place in the context of competition, where people are trying to score points and beat one another, or in the context of cooperation, where everyone has the same goal of reaching the best possible solution.
Cooperation doesn't mean altruism. It refers to a structure in which employees sink or swim together. Each has a built-in incentive to work with the others -- not to help them at his or her own expense. Also, it doesn't mean having teams compete against one another. Competition among groups, as among individuals, is both unnecessary and undesirable. It closes off the possibility of sharing ideas and resources with others in the company. After reviewing dozens of studies, the Johnsons concluded that "cooperation without intergroup competition [may promote] higher achievement and productivity than cooperation with intergroup competition."
Finally, cooperation doesn't rule out bonuses and incentive plans. In moderation, these can be effective motivators -- providing they are never offered as prizes that only one person or group can win. As soon as that artificial scarcity is created -- as it is by teachers who grade on a curve -- no rational person will want to help anyone else. The result is ill will and, in the long run, declining productivity. Any team that reaches a certain goal should be eligible for the bonus.
Of course, not all competition can be eliminated immediately. The race for promotion results partly from the pyramid-like structure that defines most American corporations. Competition among corporations, meanwhile, is, for better or worse, central to our economic system. But other sorts of rivalry can be ended with surprisingly little effort. The research is overwhelmingly clear that it makes sense to do so.