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How To Do Competition Better

Competition is instilled in us from a young age, usually with good intentions to improve performance. But has competition forced us to kill collaboration, stifle motivation and actually hold us back” Olympian, former diplomat, business coach and author of ‘The Long Win’, Dr Cath Bishop, discusses how to do competition collaboratively as opposed to the win/lose binary thinking.

“Who’s the best?”, “It’s all about being No 1!”, “Only winning counts!”. These messages resound throughout life.  Competition is instilled in us from the classroom to the boardroom.  At school, we compete to get our hands up first to answer the question right and get noticed by the teacher.  On the sports field, we compete to be selected for the first team.  And at work, we compete for profit, promotion and rewards.  Competition is typically held up as a force for good, a driver of performance and the key to ‘bring out the best in us’.  But if you look a little closer, you’ll also see that competition can kill collaboration, stifle motivation and actually hold us back from exploring our potential over the longer-term.


Facing fierce competition: of competition

It’s time to challenge the myth that competition is always beneficial and to ensure that we create a collaborative framework fit for modern-day business that requires creativity, resilience and innovation in large measures.  Life is complex for leaders of businesses today, large and small.  Businesses have to manage the impact of global issues from public health to immigration to climate change and for this, collaboration offers a better way forward than simply focusing on beating the competition, however tempting that can seem.

We often hear that we are ‘wired to win’, but that’s a half-truth at best.  There is a part of our brains that responds to the experience of ‘winning’, giving us a dopamine hit and leaving us wanting more.  But this is the gambler’s response, a short-term reaction that leads to diminishing returns.  Instead, we could choose to develop and use the part of our brains that responds to meaning, purpose and social connection, tapping into a stronger, longer-term source of motivation and a much more sustainable basis for performance.

Anthropologists have shown that it’s cooperation, not brain-size, aggression or the use of tools which defined the first humans.  There are no biological or psychological reasons why we can’t collaborate on a much greater scale if we choose to and move away from the obsession in Western culture on competition based on the destruction of our rivals.

Dr Cath Bishop is a former Olympic rower, now business coach and author.

What are the costs of viewing a world as one made up of winners and losers?  In sport, we see multiple Olympic champions and winners feeling empty and depressed when they reach the pinnacle and struggling to adapt to whatever comes after the podium.  Winning has become a fleeting moment in time as an athlete crosses the line ahead of their competitors.  But that moment has become detached from any longer-term meaning, leaving athletes facing struggles to stay motivated to continue developing their potential.  As for those who don’t reach the podium, they are all too often simply discarded along the way, regardless of their talents.  If they fail to fit the narrow definitions required to win, they seem not to count.  In business, how many of the battles to be the best have turned sour, in the corporate world of Enron, Volkswagen and Wirecard, as much as in the entrepreneurial world of tech start-ups and small businesses.  Despite multiple business cultures stating that they are based on ‘being the best’ and ‘aiming to be no 1’, the business world has seen flatlining levels of productivity and declining staff engagement across sectors.


The Alternative

When business aims are based around a genuine sense of purpose, rewarding failure and learning along the way, and the investment in deeper relationships with stakeholders essential to success, then a more sustainable basis for performance is created.  These factors form the 3C’s of ‘The Long Win’ approach to redefining success that is sustainable: through Clarity, Constant learning and Connection.

Firstly, clarify what matters, the broader purpose, social impact and change that the business wants to see.  This is then underpinned by a Constant learning approach in order to grow, adapt and innovate, rather than narrowing the focus solely on short-term results.

This is what sports psychologists develop in athletes – not a focus on winning, because that is beyond the athletes’ control and depends on a range of external factors – but a focus on becoming world-class at improving, at maximising progress, developing and learning on a daily basis.  It’s also the key in the workplace to motivating staff in a far more effective way than any rewards, incentives or bonuses can do – despite their prevalence in organisational life.

The 3rd C of Connection is the glue that binds the 3Cs and ensures a deeper human approach to business than the short-lived, old-fashioned transactional approach provides.  If we don’t have connection as a team beyond our job titles and organogram placements, then we will never harness the benefits of being a team.  If we don’t connect with customers and colleagues and really listen to their perspective, then we won’t anticipate emerging needs and be able to prepare for the future.  In discussions about ‘The Long Win’ with small business owners, I have heard repeatedly that without collaboration, it’s hard to survive – and you need friends everywhere, whether it’s to get better wholesale prices for supplies or to persuade contractors to allow payments in instalments.  In return, recommendations and connections flow through shared networks.

As an Olympic rower, my early career was dominated by obsessive competition.  I thought that was simply how it had to be.  But it was self-defeating, and by the time we came to race the rest of the world at the major championships, we were burnt out, unable to deliver as a team at the highest level required, and had accrued a lot of human collateral damage along the way.  A more collaborative high performance culture later in my career enabled me to win medals when it mattered, boosted by learning from fellow athletes, supporting and challenging each other continually to improve – I also left aware of the gains I had made along the way that would serve me beyond sport, whether it was working as a team or managing pressure.

When I worked as a diplomat, connections sat at the heart of our work as we sought to deepen relationships and build alliances across all sorts of seemingly unpassable barriers – cultural, linguistic and political.  Whatever the intractable disputes and complex issues we were negotiating, the most powerful tool we had at our disposal was human relationships which allowed us the possibility of co-creating a new way forward in the darkest of conflict-affected situations.

Proactive collaboration requires a change of mindset, new priorities, different behaviours.  In particular, we need to challenge three areas that are often set up to further competition, but in fact inhibit performance over time:

  • Remove structures and incentives that pit colleagues against each other, that discourage collaborative learning and teamworking
  • Notice and develop the quality of interactions, conversations and connections which fuel teamwork, resilience and adaptability and ultimately underpin performance
  • Recognise and reward behaviours which build trust, create inclusive environments and make a tangible contribution to the communities we are part of beyond the four walls (and screens) of our offices.

Returning to the original meaning of competition offers us a reminder of what competition used to be about and could perhaps be again.  The word comes from the Latin ‘competere’ meaning ‘to strive together’: a brilliant basis for business with no mention of beating, defeating or destroying opponents, in fact, quite the opposite.  In these challenging times for business leaders, a richer collaborative response is the only way to chart a path forward.  Business challenges aren’t really about winning and losing but more about ‘The Long Win’: progress towards a meaningful purpose, a focus on learning and the prioritization of human connections above all.


Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat and business coach. She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialized in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at Surrey Business School. Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change. Her first book ‘The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’, published October 2020, was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.’ @thecathbishop





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