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Competition or cooperation?

It is customary to assume in the majority of workplace, schools, families and other social circles, that competition is a good thing, spurring people and motivating them to action. But is that really so?

Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer in education, parenting, and human behavior, has spent seven years reviewing more than 400 research studies dealing with competition vs cooperation. He published his conclusions in his classic book from 1986, No Contest: The Case Against Competition. 

Another book he wrote in 1993 on the subject of incentives, rewards etc, is Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Illustration: competition or cooperation
Book cover: No Contest by Alfie Kohn

In his books, Kohn says:

“The ideal amount of competition… in any environment, the classroom, the workplace, the family, the playing field, is none…. [Competition] is always destructive.”

“Like any other tool for facilitating the completion of a questionable task, rewards offer a “how” answer to what is really a “why” question.”

Dr. W.Edwards Deming, whom we call the father of Quality, has said the following about Kohn’s books:

“Alfie Kohn opens a new world of living, helping the reader to clarify the heavy losses from reward – and to replace costly practices with better ones.”

“We have been in prison from wrong teaching. By perceiving that cooperation is the answer, not competition, Alfie Kohn opens a new world of living. I am deeply indebted to him.”

Cover: Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Let us conduct a quick and very basic review of the two concepts, and understand why more and more of the leading minds today in social studies and psychologies claim that cooperation is far superior to competition.

Thus said the Sages.
Quotes by people worth heeding:

Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.

— Albert Einstein

So competition is not good then?

In order to conduct this comparison I must be very clear in the terminology I use and the objectives of this article:

  • The question of “good” or “bad” is irrelevant here, for the concepts of “good” or “bad” are no more than judgments. We are not here to judge or pronounce an opinion on them.
  • The objective of this comparison is to determine which model brings us closer to achieving our goals, propels us further.
  • The goals of this review is maximum results with minimum energy investment (of any kind).

Let us also agree that here the subject does not include sports competitions, for they are a tiny bit different (but only a bit). We shall also leave out competition between businesses, there is a bit of a difference there, too, and a separate article may be written on the subject. Here we shall focus on competitions in our personal lives and at the workplace.

Now that we have focus and are clear on what we are looking for, let’s review each of the two concepts, the results they yield and the energy they consume, and determine which model best serves us.

Competition

Two major points I would like to discuss here.

First, someone always loses in a competition, better yet to say – everyone, except for the winner. Sure, someone always wins, as well – but everyone else lose. You may say: “Well, obviously, that is the nature of competition!” -and I shall fully agree. Indeed, this is the nature of competition. But what it means is that with the exception of the winner, who comes out of it empowered, everyone else is left with lower energy and negative feelings, or, in other words – weakened. Thus, the winner always ups his energy at the expense of others.

Think of yourselves and those you know, of a contest you lost with someone at work. Did you naturally feel good about him? How much did you look forward to work with him on projects or problems? Sure, you can sit down with yourselves for some self-growth and realize it is not personal… However, this is hard work, it requires a lot of energy and not everyone can do that. So your negative feelings, the hurt you felt, would prevent you from doing the best you can on your job with him. That directly damages your workplace, it is what lowered energy means, a weakened organization.

Second, announcing a contest in some area or department will surely get increased results. However, the incentive, which brought them, is external, that is not because the people wanted to do better, but due to the promised prize, these results would always be short-lived. When the contest is over – everyone rolls back to where they were.

If you have taught your workers to make efforts for prizes, now they will make no effort unless there was a prize attached to it.

Combine the two points together, and you get a decrease, not an increase  in results. People who do nothing without your investment. An organization which progresses in jumps and rolls back between them – kind of like “a step forward, two backwards.”

Cover: Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Cooperation

In cooperation each member of the group contributes his strengths to the whole group, and then, if one member is not very strong at something – another will lend his strength there in his stead. Each member of the group has equal value, and his contribution to the whole is valued by all. The group’s success empowers every member. Lack of extraordinary results weakens none, because they support each other. Therefore, both in the case of success and of challenge, all group members end up empowered. In other words – their energy is up, their feeling positive, which brings a will to act, therefore profiting the organization.

People work better when they know why and when they feel good. The knowledge that your team values your contribution and the good feeling from team cooperative effort motivate people from within, like a small motor, to work better, to do their best, to take responsibility.

The ensuing result is longstanding constant improvement.

So tell me, what do you think? Which is better? If you ask me – there’s No Contest…

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