Many of us worship competitiveness in business and sports, but according to research, we may need to rethink our love of this trait.
I’m not a very competitive person. I’ve never been one to obsess over competitive sports, video game multiplayer matches or cut-throat board games. And while I’m fascinated by challenge and high stakes performers in sports and business, I’m not the type to rush out and compete. I was comfortable with my level of competitiveness until a recent experience in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class.
During the class I was wrestling someone who was the same level and weight as me but much more competitive. He seemed to want to win a whole lot more than me, and it felt like this desire helped him to eventually beat me.
After the round I started wondering if my lack of competitive nature was hurting my performance. If I were more competitive would I have held on, pushed further and tried every trick in the book to win? More broadly, if I were more competitive would I have a better career or earn more money? Armed with these questions I dug into the science, and what I found was fascinating.
Sports and business is littered with stories of highly competitive individuals and companies who did great things. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are legendarily competitive and two of the best in basketball and golf respectively. Goldman Sachs has been known to have a highly competitive culture and has had its share of successes.
There are also the infamous stories too. Enron was a company known for its ultra-competitive company culture which was one of the ingredients behind its spectacular bankruptcy in 2001.
Table of contents
- Competition has no direct impact on performance
- Being highly competitive can be detrimental
- The difference between healthy and unhealthy competitiveness
- How to build a healthy attitude to competition
- What to do if you’re too competitive
- What to do if you’re not interested in competing or actively dislike competition
- Can you be non-competitive and still be successful?
Science finds that competition has no direct impact on performance
An interesting meta-analysis (a study merging the results of numerous individual studies on the same topic) of competition research from 2012 showed that competition had no direct impact on performance.
This finding was true regardless of whether the studies were measuring individual competitiveness, perceived environmental competition (e.g the perceived competitiveness of the classroom or office) or structural competition (e.g an actual contest or competition).
According to the meta-analysis, competition produces two substantial direct effects which actually do impact performance. But because these two effects cancel each other out competition has no direct impact on performance. The study called this the “opposing processes model”.
On the positive side, competition causes you to set performance approach goals. This is when you set a goal to outperform others. Performance approach goals are associated with behaviours positive to your performance such as eagerness, task-absorption and persistence.
On the negative side, competition causes you to set performance avoidance goals. This is when you set goals to avoid performing more poorly than others in a competition. Performance avoidance goals are associated with behaviours which can negatively affect your performance such as worry, task-distraction and self-handicapping.
Being too competitive can be detrimental
All this research points to the conclusion that being extra competitive won’t give you a performance boost, and lacking competitiveness won’t hurt performance. But what if you’re already highly competitive? The research shows that this can come with a range of detrimental effects.
A great roundup of research in this study about the ethical implications of competitiveness showed that competition is more likely than cooperation to cause conflict and damaged relationships in small groups. In team settings, highly competitive people struggle to collaborate, are liked less and also don’t contribute much. Being hypercompetitive was also shown to be associated with poor ethics.
Echoing what the meta-analysis above mentioned, the study also showed that being highly competitive also doesn’t necessarily equate to being more successful. Highly competitive people are “rarely high performers” in jobs, tasks and in school. Even highly competitive nations generally have poorer GDP and national wealth. One study of elite tennis players found that their competitiveness didn’t have a bearing on their rankings.
The difference between healthy and unhealthy competitiveness
But the above findings miss one crucial point: sometimes competition is unavoidable. Going for a promotion, playing a team sport or putting extra effort into a school or university assignment are forms of competition that many of us are expected to take part in. It makes sense to want to tackle these forms of competition in a healthy way.
There are two ways to be competitive. On the one hand there’s hypercompetitiveness, and on the other hand there’s the personal development competitiveness attitude (PDCA), otherwise known as the self-developmental competitive orientation.
Hypercompetitive people try to compete and beat you in everything, even seemingly trivial activities. They try everything to avoid losing and to make others lose. Research suggests that for a hypercompetitive person, winning might enhance their feelings of self worth.
Those with a PDCA or a self-developmental competitive orientation don’t compete solely to win. Instead they compete because it encourages self-development and enhances mastery and enjoyment of the task being completed.
People with a PDCA tend to avoid comparing themselves with others, and they respect their competitors. In fact they see their opponents as valuable partners in their self-growth.
As you can see, being competitive can be healthy and contribute to your growth if you have the right type of mindset.
How to build a healthy attitude to competition
The first step is to recognise that the objective of competition is actually personal growth. The reason why you’re competing is to further your skills, learn something and have fun. Winning is still important but it’s not the primary aim.
If we deconstruct the ingredients of a PDCA or self-developmental competitive orientation we can see that it’s a mindset shift. Someone with a healthy attitude to competition will think the following compared to a hypercompetitive person:
|Personal development competitiveness attitude (PDCA)||Hypercompetitive mindset|
|Aim of competition||To beat my previous performances||To beat others and win|
|Outcome of competition||Personal growth and increased mastery and enjoyment of the activity||Increase of self-worth by winning and demonstration of superiority|
|“If I win…”||I have learned something valuable and enjoyed the day||I have proved I am superior and dominant in my field|
|“If I lose…”||I have learned something valuable and still enjoyed the day. I will apply these learnings and improve my performance next time||I am worthless and embarrassed|
|“My opponents and training partners are…”||Teachers who are providing me with important lessons both in my chosen field and personally||Rivals who need to be beaten, not befriended|
What to do if you’re too competitive
Author and coach Brett Ledbetter gave a great TEDx talk in 2016 which helps answer this.
Similar to what has been mentioned above, he thinks that highly competitive people can benefit from changing their mindset. Instead of seeing competition as a rivalry between yourself and other competitors, you can instead view it as a healthy way to improve yourself.
His idea is that we should stop viewing competition as “me vs you” and instead view it as “me with you”. We need our training partners and opponents in order to push us further to reach our own achievements, so we should push each other in a healthy way as opposed to an unhealthy rivalry.
What to do if you’re not interested in competing or you actively dislike competition
Join the club! My personal interest in competition ranges from “not bothered” to sometimes actively avoiding it.
According to a recent study called The Four Faces of Competition: The Development of the Multidimensional Competitive Orientation Inventory there are actually two other categories you can fall into in addition to hypercompetitiveness and a PDCA / self-developmental competitive orientation.
These two attitudes are anxiety-driven competition avoidance, and lack of interest toward competition.
Those with anxiety-driven competition avoidance feel that winning or losing in a competition could cause rejection or dislike from their peers, so they avoid it.
If you lack interest toward competition you don’t necessarily avoid it, but you don’t seek it or put additional effort into winning any competitions.
It’s important to note that if you don’t like competition, you can still be incredibly successful. There are business strategies like the blue ocean strategy below which are built on non-competition.
If you’re not interested in competition or actively avoid it, the mindset shift table above might help. I personally feel more motivated to compete when I remove the aim to win and instead focus on the personal growth that will come out of competing.
Can you be non-competitive and still be successful?
Some of the most successful people and businesses have used non-competitive strategies. Warren Buffet was reportedly delighted to buy the Buffalo Evening News newspaper because it was the only newspaper in town. In the past he has also spoken about avoiding competition by building a protective “moat” around a business.
There are whole books devoted to the strategy of avoiding competition. Blue Ocean Strategy is one such example. It explains how businesses can unlock huge profits and more customers by creating a product which provides so much value for users that it leapfrogs competition and lands you in your own market altogether.
One successful example of the blue ocean strategy is Cirque Du Soleil, which is now an immensely popular hybrid circus-theatre show. Cirque Du Soleil avoided competition in the relatively small and crowded circus market and created a show where there were stories, acrobatics and artistic performances. It charged higher ticket prices and reduced costs by removing animal shows and “circus celebrities” which didn’t fit with the new concept.
Rather then become a circus competitor, Cirque Du Soleil became an alternative activity. It appealed not just to those who might be interested in going to the circus, but for those who might usually go to a theatre or comedy show.
Curves, iTunes and Lexus are other examples of successful products which sidestepped head-on competition to create products with immense value for consumers. Each of these products resulted in new markets being created for women’s only gyms, high quality legally downloadable music and affordable luxury cars respectively.
Do you have any thoughts or experiences with competition and competitiveness? Share them below!
- Murayama, Kou & J Elliot, Andrew. (2012). The Competition-Performance Relation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of the Opposing Processes Model of Competition and Performance. Psychological bulletin. 138. 1035-70. 10.1037/a0028324.
- Gábor, Orosz & Tóth-Király, István & Noémi, Büki & Ivaskevics, Krisztián & Bőthe, Beáta & Fülöp, Márta. (2018). The Four Faces of Competition: The Development of the Multidimensional Competitive Orientation Inventory. Frontiers in Psychology. 9. 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00779.