Competitiveness in business is seen as fundamental to business success. The competitive spirit appears to drive and inspire innovation and excellence. Sport is another example of a area in which competitiveness is highly prized. The best sportsmen/women are competitive, and the best sports teams are competitive. Sport is about competing.

We get confused about competitiveness though. There are several thought viruses about competition as it appears in sport and business that I would like to challenge in this article. Think of this as some food for thought.

Sport is not all about competition

The first thought virus I want to challenge is the idea that sport is all about competition. This is entirely false. Fundamentally, even though there are clearly competitive elements in sport, and particularly in competitive sport, becoming good and competing is first and foremost a matter of collaboration.

Sure, it may at first seem that the only objective in sport is to be better than the opposition, to “beat” them. When you think more deeply it becomes apparent just how much collaboration is involved in sport.

Successful sports teams are collaborative

For one, if we are talking about a team sport, you have to be able to collaborate effectively with your team-mates in order to succeed. Not only must the teammates collaborate with each other, they must also all collaborate with the support staff; including the coaches, physio’s and whoever else is part of team of people supporting and enabling the success of the sports team. A breakdown in collaboration at any of these levels can be catastrophic to the success of the team.

If we bear this in mind, there is actually no truly individual sport. All high level competitive athletes have support teams. A break down in collaboration between themselves and their teams will have devastating effects on their success. Usain Bolt is a prime example of the role a coach plays in the success of athletes at the highest level. The levels of trust and respect, which are the hallmark of genuine collaboration, are unmistakable in Usain Bolt’s relationship with his coach.

Competition itself is collaborative

Most people realise that successful sports teams are built on principles of effective collaboration. What most people don’t recognise however is that every competitive sport itself is a elaborate collaboration. In fact, competing in a competitive sport is a form of collaboration with all those involved in the sport, even the opposition.

The collaborative effort behind setting up a competition is incredibly high. Where are we competing; when are we competing; what we are competing for and what the rules of the competition are, are all the product of collaborative effort. One football team does not make the Champions League. The league is the product of collaboration between all the teams, all the organisers, all the sponsors, all the fans, all the media, and many others besides.  The Champions League is in fact an immense collaborative effort to put on a spectacle. The more respectful and well-intentioned that collaboration, the better the spectacle. In effect, it is impossible to compete in sport without first collaborating.

Competitiveness in business

The problem is a bit more complicated in business, particularly large business. In the first instance it is clear however, if a business is not internally collaborative, it will not succeed.

Successful businesses are internally collaborative

If we view a business as a team, ask yourself: how mindful is your average employee of your business’s competitors? Your typical employee doesn’t give a second thought to your competition. Typically, the bigger the business, unfortunately, the more your average employee will invest significant amounts of energy competing with their team-mates. Jostling for position, trying to outdo one-another, trying to undermine one-another, etc. are examples of this sort of behaviour. This is “small-world thinking”.

Every business will have degrees of this behaviour. But, if this behaviour is rampant, the business is not actually competing in the market, it is competing with itself. It is constantly undermining itself and it has become its own competition. If this is what is meant by competitiveness in business, then it is clear that competitiveness in business should be avoided like the plague. Successful businesses are not tolerant of this behaviour. They manage to stamp this behaviour out and elicit genuine collaboration in its stead.

Should a business be competitive with its competition?

So what place does competition have? It seems natural to think that it is appropriate and best for businesses in the same market to be competitive with one another. No doubt, it is very important to have good grasp of how you stack up against your competitors because that helps you understand the market you are in, and how you can best service the needs of the market.

Even in this case however, we must be very careful how we think about competition. Truly competitive behaviour involves doing whatever is in your power to beat whatever/whoever you are competing against. Competitive behaviour is essentially comparative, it strives to be better than someone else. A competitive person wants to stand out above everyone else. And this is the core issue with competition.

Don’t try to undermine your competition, learn from them

No business makes money from beating its competition. Undermining your competition helps you beat them but it does not make your business better, it makes theirs worse. Strictly speaking, a business makes money from offering products and services to its customers, not from beating its competition. In this sense beating the competition should never be your primary goal as a business, serving customers and clients to the best of your ability should.

It is only natural for human beings to what to be better than and stand out above others. There is also no denying that a competitive mindset is an incredibly powerful motivator. But, much like fire, if it is not very consciously controlled and directed it very easily becomes a destructive force and you will get burned. You can strive for excellence without needing to be greater than another. You can achieve excellence without undermining the other. In fact, the more you are able to allow the other to be excellence, the more you enable yourself to achieve it.

Please feel free to engage with my thoughts in the comments below. If you want to engage further on this topic, please check out our LinkedIn Group

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