All football players are dream of winning the Super Bowl. All baseball players dream of winning the World Series. All soccer players dream of winning the World Cup. All (ice) hockey players dream of winning the Stanley Cup. And all track & field athletes or swimmers dream of winning an Olympic gold medal.
Does everybody who’s doing sports have the ultimate goal of competing? And competing for what?
Maybe we should move the focus away from the big stages. If you are playing in the NFL it is obvious that you like to compete as otherwise you wouldn’t have made it there. So from there aiming at winning the Super Bowl is a logical target. But how about lower leagues or other sports?
I think that basically there are two kinds of competition: Competing with others and competing with yourself. Those competing with others have the goal to perform better than the others do, those competing with themselves have the goal to perform better than they did ever before (or at least better than they did last time).
I just read a remarkable interview with former swimmer and triple Olympic gold medalist Michael Groß. In the interview Groß argued that he was always going for the perfect race, not just for winning. Competing with himself.
At the Summer Olympics in 1984 at Los Angeles, Groß, nicknamed “The Albatross” because of his size (6ft6 – 2,01m) and arms span (7ft, 2,13m), accomplished that goal. In the 4x200m men’s relay race, he was the final starter for the favorites from Germany. He finished his 200 meters in 1:46:89 minutes – the fastest 200m relay split ever. His opponent in fourth spot of the US team, Bruce Hayes, was expected to be around 2.5 seconds slower on the 200m that Groß. After the third of his team mates finished his part, Hayes jumped into the water with an advantage of 1.48 seconds but after 150 meters, Groß was, as expected, already on level with him. Something remarkable happened then: Hayes pulled off an incredible performance on the final 50 meters and held off the Albatross, winning by 4 hundreds of a second.
Groß finally swum the perfect race, but it ended in a loss. In the interview he said he realized that performance and success are not necessarily linked. However, his approach of competing with himself and of aiming at perfection helped him a lot in his life after sports. He now owns a successful consulting company specialized in communications and teaches at a business school.
That sets him apart from many former athletes that used to compete with others, not with themselves. Their motivation came from winning or losing, not from going for perfection. As soon as their career was over, it was harder for them to establish themselves in their “second life”.
I believe many companies make a mistake. As they are in an competitive environment and as the people working there have goals and targets based on the competitive environment they are in, many of them feel like they compete with their colleagues every day. That’s why these companies tend to – consciously or unconsciously – recruit and reward more people that are of the “compete with others” type. These deliver great results when the emotional level is high, when they are “in competition”. But they will have a hard time when trying to deliver in situations in which aiming at improving what you do, aiming at perfection without looking at an immediate threat is necessary, just like some “compete with others” athletes fail in establishing a successful life after sports.
But there’s also a third group: Those not competing at all.
You’ll find some of them in a park on Sunday mornings, jogging, walking, doing their yoga exercises, etc. There will be some that do it for a certain purpose, like losing weight, improving their stamina, etc., which is more like “competing with themselves”, but some just do it because they enjoy doing it, with no other thoughts behind. They run because it’s fun to run, they walk because they like it and they do yoga because it gives them a good feeling.
You might also find them in your company – if you’re lucky enough that some of them made the cut. Those people are not blinded by competitive tactics or by trying to improve tasks and processes all the time, they enjoy what they do, connect people and come up with ideas that others wouldn’t have.
You’re probably familiar with the notion of incremental vs. radical innovation (if not, you might want to check one of my older blog entries on this topic) – if you’re targeting radical innovation, having some “non competers” on the team may be very helpful.
The problem is: You won’t find them at competitions, you’ll find them in the park on a Sunday morning. Is your company – in the figurative sense – recruiting at competitions only or are you also going to the Park on Sunday mornings? And do you allow them to work in an enjoyable, non (or little) competitive environment? Are you prepared to grant them the degree of freedom they need to enjoy what they’re doing?
Competition is good – and I mentioned this a couple of times here on this blog (just follow the tag “competition“). But if you really want to create a competitive advantage, it pays to bring in some of those that compete with themselves or that don’t want to compete at all, even if this may sound like a contradiction.