“How are things going?"
You may be surprised that I dread this innocuous-sounding question. It heralds for me a physical sensation which is quite unpleasant – a constriction in my stomach and a sharp intake of breath as I consider my response strategy.
Of course, the answer I am expected to give is, “Really well, thanks!" followed by a string of my recent accomplishments, and accompanied by mock complaints about how busy I am. If I am lucky, my interlocutor will be pleased for me and offer congratulations (which may come across as more or less genuine). However, it is just as likely he or she will attempt to out-compete me in terms of achievements, or worse, pour cold water on what I am doing.
On the other hand, if I am not happy about my situation in that moment, it is more likely I will dissemble. After all, this is the most sensible approach to take in a business environment which gives little time to those who are slipping down the snakes and not climbing the ladders.
You may be reading this and thinking that the company I keep is unduly aggressive, that I am extremely sensitive, or that I view relationships in a very negative light. Yet, my observations lead me to believe that my experience is shared, and monitoring my own internal reactions makes me certain. When I am tempted to ask the same question of others, I experience a varying degree of emotion if they tell me about their a new job, a successful partner, a rekindled fitness regime, or recent weight loss. I am assessing how well I am doing in comparison. (I’ve heard it said that men are brought up to enjoy competition more than women. For myself, I know I only enjoy competition when I am ahead).
We take the benefits of competition so much for granted – it is supposed to stimulate the best performance in us – that we rarely stop to think about whether we may be taking this concept too far. Outside our work lives, competition is often a driving factor in our choice of homes, cars, holidays, and even leisure activities. Amateur psychologists know this type of competition arises from our need to feel better about ourselves, suffering as we all do from the scourge of low self-esteem.
At its extreme, competition leads to behaviours that close down our creative energies, such as hostility, aggression, defensiveness, and untruthfulness, rather than expanding them towards openness to new ideas and ventures. It also reinforces an unhealthy dependency upon other people’s opinions rather than help us develop our own judgement. Ironically, it appears that excessive competition renders us less competitive.
Such behaviours stem from an assumption that the world is a harsh and unforgiving environment where resources are limited and individuals have to struggle to secure their piece of the cake. It’s a primitive worldview arising from when we as hunter-gatherers had to fight each other to ensure our physical survival, reinforced by economic theory that equilibrium is achieved through the rational pursuit of self-interest. Fortunately, there are lots of examples which show human behaviours are kinder, such as the outpouring of fellow-feeling during disasters like the 2004 tsunami.
In organisations, it appears we can’t be competitive enough. Our goal is to beat the other players in the market. Indeed, governments ensure businesses are sufficiently competitive so the customer gets the best deal. However, the artificial creation of competition in sectors such as education and health sometimes seems to be taken to nonsensical ends.
Collaboration too is sometimes needed to produce market efficiency, even in an industry as hard-nosed as financial services. For example, the regulators continue to regard with suspicion the alliances of banks required to maintain the international payment systems network – an industry I know well. Yet it is impossible to envisage breaking up these partnerships when consumers, retailers and whole industries now rely on being able to make secure transactions around the world within seconds. Dee Hock, who founded the VISA payment system in 1970, believed a completely different kind of organisation was needed to meet the challenges it faced. The unique principles upon which VISA was established, allowing for a degree of collaboration between its members, now enable over 20,000 institutions to cooperate in processing 57 billion transactions a year.
So, the next time we meet and are ready to fire off that automatic question, let’s take a moment to check out our motives. I hope we will be interested to hear each other’s news no matter how we are doing.
Jennifer Fitzgerald is the founder of Mind for Business Ltd, a company helping organisations make changes successful by aligning personal behaviours with organisational values. She offers coaching for teams and individuals, cultural assessments and NLP-based personal development programmmes. Jennifer also works as a financial services management consultant, specialising in the cards and payments industry.