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The world, or at least the publishers of business related material, appears to have an untiring appetite for material that seeks to illuminate business and workplace behaviour by shining a light on a sporting arena. We’ve recently commented on the research of Brandon Irwin into what we might label silent competition, but already another example has come our way. Gavin Kilduff, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business, was interviewed recently at the Strategy + Business blog about The Upsides and Dark Sides of Rivalry.

In the following post, we’ve included extracts from the online Q&A session, and offered our own commentary. Whether you see this as a competitive analysis or as ‘shouting from the sidelines’ – and your choice may merit a moment of self-reflection – we hope that it provides food for thought.

FK [Frieda Klotz]: Are the effects of rivalry positive or negative?

GK [Gavin Kilduff]: I describe rivalry as a double-edged sword. One benefit that I’m investigating may be that when organizations have fierce rivals, the individuals in those organizations may be more committed and more loyal to each other. The presence of a constant rival in their minds may foster greater in-group cohesion. Other benefits include increased motivation and performance. For example, when runners competed against a rival (as opposed to against their other competitors), they ran an average of 5 seconds per kilometer faster in a race. And when we asked individuals to think about personal rivals for just a few minutes, they exhibited increased motivation and persistence on a subsequent task.

The downsides are potentially many, however. Unethical behavior—in the form of cheating or unsportsmanlike conduct, for instance—increases when people are competing against their rivals. People seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to get an advantage in those situations.

If Gavin Kilduff is looking for motivating effects in business, I wonder if his research may be a little off the mark in this instance. By its very nature, the whole concept of ‘fierce rivals’ implies an absence of loyalty, other than to the notion of defeating your opponent at any cost.  Having constant competition (albeit that it is not quite synonymous with rivalry) could foster greater in-group cohesion if the group has collectively bought into the notion that they are competing intentionally and that a collective benefit can be gained (ie they relish the competition).

The critical difference is of intention: if the objective is to compete fiercely, the intention is to defeat your opponent – hence the likelihood of unsportsmanlike conduct – rather than to continually improve and to exceed a standard that you have set for yourself. The organisation, which one would hope is watchful, should also be ensuring that personal goals are not achieved at the expense of organisational ones.

FK: Why do sports offer such a good analogy for other organizational research?

GK: Sports organizations fundamentally grapple with issues such as leadership, team dynamics, motivation, and decision making, all of which are broadly relevant to organizations. And there’s a lot of detailed, objective data on sports organizations and competition.

But it’s never good to have all the research for a particular topic come from a single domain, so, as part of my exploration, I asked non-athletes to write about a personal rival—how they feel about that person and what they competed on. It’s a technique called priming. I then analyzed how that exercise influenced their behavior.

In addition to the persistence benefits mentioned earlier, I have also found that just having people write about a rival for five minutes makes them agree more with all kinds of Machiavellian statements. They were also more likely to inflate their performance on a task by saying that they fared better than they actually did. That’s evidence of unethical behavior.

Sports offer a good analogy perhaps only in as far as they involve people interacting.  Research interpersonal behaviours in any context and you’ll be able to draw on what you observe and apply it to a business setting: sports settings are far from unique in this regard.

The reference to influencing behaviours through the process of ‘priming’ is well documented: our behaviours in any given settings are typically gearing towards the norms of the given situation.  Historically, if you put people into any scenario – as shown in Zimbardo’s and then in Stanford’s later prisoner experiments – where there is a ‘typical set of behaviours’ then you would expect that people will typically conform.

Create a scenario where unethical behaviour is the given norm and, unsurprisingly, people tend to behave unethically. As Gavin says himself – outside of criminal or sociopathic acts – “a large percentage of us, psychological research suggests, can be pushed one way or another depending on situational factors.” (A point that, albeit in a backwards fashion, explains the importance of modelling as well as dictating and rewarding behaviours: you might ask people to do as you say rather than as you do, but they may mimic your actions rather than follow your instructions.)

FK: Which are the industries where it might be an effective strategy to foster rivalry?

GK: Rivalry seems to benefit performance in routine tasks, where effort is really important—more important than skill or precision—and where motivation needs a boost. If people’s baseline motivations are fairly low and cooperation among individuals isn’t really important, taking steps to foster rivalry between employees may work. Sales and telemarketing are good examples. Those kinds of companies definitely employ strategies to foster rivalry and competition between their employees.

But thinking about the possible dark side, certain tasks in certain work environments afford greater flexibility for people to engage in questionable behaviors. If you’re an investment banker with a long leash to do what you want, you may have a lot of discretion to take risks or to engage in somewhat shady tactics that could be inadvertently promoted by rivalry. So that might be a more dangerous environment for rivalry to exist in.

Here I disagree: rivalry benefits performance in many roles, even those that are not routine tasks and including those that involve skill and/or precision, even when motivation doesn’t need a boost.  In an experiment in a mushroom picking farm, pickers who were incentivised with bonuses based on the amount of mushrooms they each picked would increase the volume at the right quality to only a marginal extent.  But when pickers were matched against and encouraged to learn from each other, they naturally competed through a desire to better their own performance and demonstrated both enhanced skill and precision.

The notion of fostering rivalry as a means to increase outputs is an area where both experiments and businesses suffer.  In all cases, it is important to take into account the nature of the competition, the degree to which individuals feel there is collective benefit to be gained, and their willingness to participate. Collective benefit does not mean ‘everyone winning’: overall performance is increased when groups knowingly enter into a competitive environment in which their aim is to continually better their performance in reference to those around them – and in which everyone does so knowingly and willingly. Transparency of intention is an important component not just in the efficacy of the experiment, but in the broader context of maintaining relationships and an environment of trust.

FK: It sounds as though we’re talking about something that needs to be carefully managed.

GK: Yes. And I should also mention another potential side effect of rivalry, which occurs when companies become preoccupied with historic rivals and obsessively focus on a particular individual or organization. That could be effective if they’re your primary competitor, but as things evolve—let’s say as the industry itself changes—competition with that rival may become less relevant to your success, and a preoccupation or focus on it might start to become dysfunctional.

A great example is U.S. automakers in the 1980s: They were very much focused on beating one another, the Big Three. Japanese automotive makers were flying under the radar, and weren’t really considered serious threats—or rivals—by the Big Three until they had already taken a huge part of the market share.

This is something for managers to keep in mind. Are you focusing too much strategic attention on a company that you’ve always competed with? It may be great to have a rival to psyche yourself up or get the workforce galvanized, but it comes at a risk of tunnel vision.

This is a useful example, as Kilduff is highlighting the reason why the Japanese automotive industry succeeded so well – because it competed with high performing peers and measured its performance against an equally high standard.  The Japanese manufacturers are the real example here, not the Big Three: the latter took their eye off (or, more accurately, failed to really look at) the Japanese.

In doing so, they provided another important lesson about competition: in much the same way as the analogy of the tortoise and the hare, if you underestimate your competitors, you are likely to fall short.