“Competition is the worst possible arrangement as far as relationship is concerned”
–educator Alfie Kohn (1986)

In one of my recent articles, I discussed the great Alfie Kohn’s controversial thoughts about rewards and recognition. Perhaps even more thought-provoking are Kohn’s ideas about competition, raised in his seminal and fascinating work, “No Contest-the Case Against Competition” (1986).

In No Contest, Kohn looks at the mechanism of competition and investigates it from all angles, exploring just why it is that we turn most of our activities into competitions. His conclusions are worth examining.

1) Is competition more productive?
Supporters of competition argue that contests increase your focus and provide energy and motivation. To the contrary, Kohn suggests that our quality of work is poorer under competitive conditions. In study after study, children test lower in combative (rather than collaborative) classroom environments. Contestants in a student piano competition- wracked with anxiety and the desire to please judges – produce less inventive, less spontaneous music. Newspaper reporters rush articles to print without sufficient fact-checking, in a mad scramble to avoid being “scooped” by the competition. Pitting oneself against others for the sake of extrinsic rewards seems not to lead to higher quality and productivity – rather, it results in dampened creativity, diminished accuracy and considerable anxiety.

2) Is competition more enjoyable?
Advocates of the competitive structure contend that “a little competition never hurt anyone” – and it’s fun to boot. Kohn takes issue with this, describing the unsavory side-effects of competition: namely, feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and isolation. In an intensely competitive environment, says Kohn, contestants are led to believe that winning makes them a “good” person (and by association, losing renders them “bad” people.) The idea that “winners” are good and “losers” are bad is consistently reinforced by our culture and society. When a high school football team taunts their opponents and calls them “losers” (using thumb and fore finger to make an “L” on their foreheads), they’re saying, “You lost, therefore you are losers as human beings. And many of the so-called “losers” will believe it! Contests, in essence, place one’s self-esteem at stake. Your worth is now conditional on victory, a state that we all know is never permanent and hence can offer no genuine comfort. Winning doesn’t ultimately satisfy – and yet how many “competitive” people imagine they’ll be happy and whole if they can win just one more time? This drive to alleviate inadequacy through winning, Kohn argues, has the air of addiction; one returns to it again and again, hoping that this time it’ll last – which of course it never can.

3) Does competition build character?
Ask any Little League coach this question and she’ll answer, “Of course it does! Our kids develop self-discipline, intestinal fortitude, and team communication skills.”; Kohn offers an alternative interpretation: that non-competitive team activities offer the same opportunity to set goals, display self-discipline and master skills. Trying to do well and beat others are two different things. One can develop the same elements of “character” — stretching one’s abilities to the utmost — in a collaborative activity, without the necessity of trying to beat or dis-empower others. And again, posits Kohn, the fall-out of competition is considerable. People learn to value the product rather than the process, missing much of the enjoyment of the activity. They see the world as a dichotomous place, populated only by winners and losers. And aggression and hostility are very much cultivated – as anyone who has sat through a British soccer can match can certainly attest. Competition builds character all right, but is it the kind of character we want for our youth?

4) Does competition build relationship?
The structure of competition, at its most elemental level, is such that a person (or group) can achieve his (or their) own goal only at the expense of others not reaching their goals. Your rival, in essence, becomes a “thing” rather than a person, deprived of subjectivity. Kohn argues that competition not only discourages connection and relationship, it engenders envy, contempt and distrust. The strongest competitors, he asserts, lose their ability to empathize-a mindset that is remarkably difficult to keep limited to the playing field. But what about the comaraderie you share with your teammates? Isn’t that a collaborative relationship? Kohn concedes the point, but rues the fact that such intra-group cooperation is so often accompanied by inter-group competition. As a sales manager recently told me, “The fastest way to build a team is to rally them against a common enemy.” Kohn sees the price as too high, wondering “why not expand cooperation so as to include as many people as possible rather than restricting it to one’s in-group?”

5) Is there a path beyond competition?
Instead of taking competition for granted, Kohn suggests we “ought to be asking what broader arrangements might be altered so as to present us with a structure that does not require winners and losers.” Coaches could introduce collaborative games into their schools as a way of “reconceptualizing recreation”. Teachers could discuss methods for altering the current competitive grade structure. Politicians could emphasize “mutual security” rather than “national security.” Kohn sees the process as a collective effort, requiring a good deal of education and organization. A difficult task, to be sure, but eminently possible and extremely worthwhile.

As I said, Kohn’s arguments are controversial. One might be tempted to argue that what in fact defines us as Americans is our “competitive spirit”. Nevertheless, I think Kohn’s points are worth at least considering. Is there a way beyond contests, competitions and prizes? Would there be benefit in shifting our business structures away from “relationship-busting” competition and toward “relationship-building” collaboration and cooperation?

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