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Improving Worker Productivity Doesn’t Include Competition

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To increase productivity at work, we often turn to competition. It turns out struggle does not create the best possible outcome after all.

That’s the principle of a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He writes:

As a young man, Peter Thiel competed to get into Stanford. Then he competed to get into Stanford Law School. Then he competed to become a clerk for a federal judge. Thiel won all those competitions. But then he competed to get a Supreme Court clerkship.

Thiel lost that one. So instead of being a clerk, he went out and founded PayPal. Then he became an early investor in Facebook and many other celebrated technology firms. Somebody later asked him. “So, aren’t you glad you didn’t get that Supreme Court clerkship?”

The question got Thiel thinking.

On the one hand, this is more evidence that failure is the secret to success. But the entrepreneur and venture capitalist is now teaching a class at Stanford questioning the role of competition. Brooks continues:

One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

consulting on employee success

© Flickr user Highways Agency

This message aligns with what we’ve been saying at AccelaWork for years. Organizations that want to innovate and nurture employee success should not be focusing on competition. Instead, the best way to improve worker productivity is to embrace freedom. In fact, we know that when you add the stress of competing teams  it makes employee productivity decrease.

Brooks argues this elegantly–by nothing that we often reduce professional endeavors to metaphors that involve sports:

But business, politics, intellectual life and most other realms are not like [baseball]. In most realms, if somebody hits three home runs against you in one inning, you have the option of picking up your equipment and inventing a different game. You don’t have to compete; you can invent.

Instead, organizations should recall the most important corporate productivity advice, ever: that it is the freedom innovate and take risks which enables individuals to succeed, not external motivators such as money, status or points.

Competition works on the field where the rules cannot be changed.  The purpose of business, however, is to invent new rules.

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