Recent controversy about the workplace environment at Amazon and elsewhere has brought in to focus the question, “What is healthy competition and what is not?” Competition has become so ingrained in our culture that many people- thinking transactionally- see no other option. You compete to get what you want and let the other guy compete to get what he wants-–that’s fair right? Competition makes us better. It keeps us on the run. There is always someone competing with us, ready to take our place, so we are insecure and always striving. The striving, the struggle, makes us stronger and smarter. Without competition we become lazy, self-indulgent, and weak. Winners are hard-working, disciplined, and strong. These, no doubt, are admirable qualities and the winners deserve whatever rewards they can manage to gain from their efforts.
These beliefs underlie a system of competition put in place by the law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore in the 20th century and appropriately called the “Cravath System.” The firm would hire large amounts of promising, entry level attorneys and, over a period of few years, trim their numbers by placing these employees under large amounts of stress, making it clear that singular devotion to their success was required in order to advance. Those who could withstand the heat were rewarded with partnerships. Those who could not left the firm and new employees were brought in.
Variations on this type of competition, the New York Times claims in a recent article, is “perhaps the defining feature of the upper echelon in today’s white-collar workplace.” The profitably of companies that use a variation of the system, like Amazon, would lead us to believe that it is successful in elevating the best and the brightest among us to create greater innovation, better technology, longer lifespans, and an efficient allocation of the scarce resources of our planet. Who can argue that competition is not a way of interaction that results in positive outcomes-–a fair way to create the most good for the most people?
Unfortunately, the Cravath System creates a kind of internal competition that pits employees against each other and causes the workplace to fracture. What tends to distinguish the “stars” (the ones who go on to promotions and their associated benefits) from the pack in systems like these is the ability for an employee to devote almost all of their time to the company, an ability that becomes increasingly difficult when an employee has a family or experiences tragedy or sickness. To complicate this further, these systems promote triangling in the workplace, as employees gain power and become closer to someone influential by being with them in opposition to a third person. Finally, this constant competition can have grave consequences, as it produces the stress that is at the root of many psychological and physical ailments. Dealing with stress, additionally, makes it even harder to be relational.
This is not to say that competition is inherently bad. There is a time and a place for competing–in sports, in games, in business, in sales, in donations, in votes (though even in those arenas there are limits). Healthy competition unites a team, rather than pits employees against each other internally. Competition that crushes and oppresses others is not positive.
Rather than competing (or promoting competition) with others on your staff, promote the success of others by giving of yourself. For winners like you, lasting positive change in your family, workplace, community and world starts with you–being gentle in how you use your power because what you do affects others. You want that effect to be positive. You want to maximize well- being for both self and other. Using your power to get all that you can for yourself out of an interaction with another might seem good in the short run, but in the long run it leaves others poor and bitter and you rich and hollow.
According to the New York Times, there is hope for change, as “more and more young highly credentialed workers acknowledge that they can’t fulfill their responsibilities as husbands, wives, parents and friends while ascending through their organizations.” We ask that these young workers’ bosses be relational in their treatment of their employees, to be kind in understanding that brutal competition is not healthy on a personal level or for the workplace in general. Fostering their talents rather than pitting them against fellow workers will help create a positive, united, relational team that is ready to help the organization thrive as it meets the challenges of finding prosperity in business.
Title: team meeting