Cooperation vs Competition LO6411

John Woods (
Thu, 4 Apr 1996 08:54:00 -0600 (CST)

On another list, I had the opportunity to contribute to the discussion
noted in the topic above. I thought it might serve to stimulate
discussion on the learning org as well.

I'd like to weigh in on this discussion about competition and cooperation,
but I'm going to put a twist on it. I like to tell people that
competition is not the opposite of cooperation but simply a particular
form of cooperation. When people compete, it requires that they accept
and act on certain assumptions about their relationships and how they will
interact together, just like cooperation. In other words, they must
cooperate to compete.

We have all seen how competitive relationships can be destructive to the
individuals who participate in them, whether within a family or an
organization. Still, such competition requires tacit (perhaps even
unconscious) agreement among the participants on how they will interact
with one another. One thing that seems to characterize such destructive
relationships is the sense of win-lose. For one person to win, somebody
else has to lose and "winning," no matter by what method, becomes the goal
of all. However, such assumptions merely serve to perpetuate this
win-lose mentality in such a way that the loser will want to work harder
to make the other guy the loser next time. Ultimately, there are no
winners here, only people taking actions to enhance their personal egos at
the expense of others. Deep down we all know this is a formula for
insecurity and unhappiness. In other words, it is a losing approach for
all. Thus, I believe that if we operate from the attitude of win-lose,
that is, for me to win, you have to lose, this is really a lose-lose
proposition for all concerned. It's not healthy. It leads to all the
problems Deming railed against as he urged people to understand the
organization as system and to focus on processes and their improvement.

So the question, as Myron Tribus wondered about, is can competition ever
be good? My response is that it can be. Perhaps there is a situation
that requires extraordinary effort from all the participants working on
their own, each one doing his or her best to go faster, be more
productive, sell the most, or whatever. In such situations, the goal is
to bring out the best in all participants using the resources they have at
their disposal. The goal of the situation is not, however, to win for the
sake of winning. It is to discover how well people can perform. I suppose
the Olympics is the model of such competition or perhaps an architectural
competition or an engineering competition. In all cases, participating is
less about winning (though we corrupt such competitions to make that the
most important thing) than about discovering what human beings are capable
of. In this case, setting up a competition can be good and all
participants can feel good about being a part of it because it brings out
the best in all of us and helps set new standards for what individuals or
teams are capable of. This is a win-win approach to competition,
undertaken with the right spirit and with those declared the victor having
a certain humility and an appreciation for the chance to participate and
contribute. And still in all this, the spirit of cooperation and
comaraderie among participants is preserved.

However, we should also note that pure cooperation can also be another way
to bring out the best in people. Perhaps most often this is the way to
bring out the best in people. It gets people communicating openly and
sharing information. It recognizes that the success of any person depends
on the performance of many other individuals. It gets people working
together to figure out how to pool their individual skills to succeed
together. It, too, is a win-win approach to getting things done.

So in the end, we all need each other and we all work together, whether
cooperatively or competitively. In appreciating this, we may adopt the
mode that is best suited to the situation in which we find ourselves. But
in making this selection, never make "winning" your goal. Rather, make
performing your goal. Make bringing out the best in everyone your goal.
Make serving others your goal. Be humble when you do well and learn from
the experience so you can get still better. If you have this attitude and
take this approach, you can be assured that good things will happen. And
if you take an approach that emphasizes win-lose, you can be sure that in
the long haul there will only be losers.

John Woods
Madison, WI
Writer, Speaker, Consultant

-- (John Woods)

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>