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What's Wrong with Competition?

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Unfortunately, although people talk about "healthy" competition, often, competition really just brings out the worst in people...

Do you think that it would be hard to have creativity, innovation or progress without competition? A lot of people do. And so do a lot of leaders.

Thinking that competition is something that is healthy is ingrained in many people from the time they are small children. Playing one or more competitive sports, competing for the best grades and highest rankings at school, and running for class elections or for Homecoming King or Queen are part of most people's school experiences.

Parents often enroll their children in competitive pursuits because they believe that it will help them learn how to be "team players" and how to be "good losers". They think that it will teach kids to be more resilient, innovative and will bring out the best in them.

Unfortunately, though, competition often brings out the worst in people.

Because in competition, there are only two possibilities: either you (and your team) are the winner...or you (and your team) are the loser. And no one wants to be the loser.

Fear of losing, and the pressure and worry that comes from it, is the biggest cause of people acting in unkind ways. From the unkind ways that parents treat other parents, coaches and referees at Little League games, to the unkind ways they act when children don't bring home good grades at school or don't perform as they expect them to, it's easy to see competition bringing out the worst in people.

At work, when people compete for bonuses, promotions and to keep their jobs during tough times, they are more likely to speak and act unkindly to their team members. Incentive systems that are set up to reward high performance and encourage those who are under performing to step up their game, rarely do. They just create an atmosphere in which people are unwilling to help each other and collaborate and cooperate, because then the person helped might become the "winner" yet again.

Kind Leaders understand that although, as a culture, we've been brought up to think that competition is healthy, and helps people move forward, actually, it often brings out the worst in them, and causes them to hide problems, withhold ideas and help from others.

That's why Kind Leaders pay attention to how those they are leading interact. When they see people behaving in competitive ways, they work to help them change those competitive ways to collaborative and cooperative ones. Because when people collaborate and cooperate, they work as a team. They leave individual agendas behind and focus on creating new and innovative ways to find solutions. Instead of worrying about themselves, and winning and losing, they focus on creating better ways to work together to serve their customers and help the organization progress.

Competition isn't necessary. Without competition, not only would there be more creativity and innovation, there would be less stress, more joy and a lot more kindness!

What do you think? Is there such thing as "healthy" competition? And if you think there is, how can you, as a leader, tell when it's moved from healthy to unhealthy?


To learn more about the unhealthy and unkind effects of competition, and how to move your team towards more collaborative and cooperative ways to work, please see Chapter 7 of The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating Trust and Leading with Kindness.

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