Illusions in the Workplace 1


Lately, I’ve been reading the book Communion with God by Neal Donald Walsch.

The author talks about the usefulness of illusions — 10 in all — that are part and parcel of the human experience. The illusions are actually meant for us to re-experience who we really are and who God really is, and life is about working through them and arriving back at where we started, i.e. the Truth. However, once we’ve come back home to the truth, we return with a new experience, which actually adds to what God knows of himself.

This is a powerful, grand concept.

Perhaps that same concept can be expanded to include the workplace, and that there are illusions that we maintain in the working world that are useful, but only to a point.

The First Illusion I’d like to explore is that of competition.

It is an illusion to think that out and out war exists between companies. In fact, there is far more cooperation than there is competition.

We are taught that business is about the survival of the fittest, and that companies are fighting with each other to survive, and that their focus should be on the destruction of their competitors.

Let’s look at some examples of what also seems like competition, but it actually a carefully crafted case of cooperation.

Athletic Competition

In sports such as boxing and track and field, at one levels it’s all about the competition between the competitors. Obviously, one person is out to “beat” the others.).)

Yet, in order to have a competition, until the boxers step into the ring, or the athletes step onto the track they must cooperate in order to allow the competition to proceed. They must show up at the same time and the same place. They must allow each other to train, and to do so with the best resources possible. They must follow the rules, even the seemingly meaningless ones. They better they are at getting people interested in the competition, the more tickets will be sold to the event.

In other words, they must cooperate to assist the other athletes in showing up as prepared as they can be to engage in the competition. Why?

To put it simply, a boxer needs an opponent. He or she cannot show up for the fight and claim victory when their opponent either fails to show or does so in poor condition.

Also, in the case of the athlete, he or she needs top class competition in order to do well, and to break records. Even if the athlete is good enough to break records on his/her own, no-one would show up to see them compete with themselves, and that would be the death of that sport.

Clearly, the destruction of one’s opponents is not in the best interest of an athlete, which is why competition only makes sense against a background of broad cooperation.

The same is true for corporations that compete in business.

Monopolies, or companies that have the least competition, are probably the most inefficient companies. They are despised the most by their customers (witness TSTT in Trinidad and other Cable and Wireless companies across the Caribbean, before the advent of competition in the cellular market). Their employees (anecdotally) appear to be the least motivated (after all, if you don’t like it here, then “tough luck” to you).

The demise of one’s competitors, or absence of the same is simply bad for business and leads to a propensity to fool oneself (no-one at Cable and Wireless believed that a competitor with no history in the Caribbean would gain 60% market-share in 3 years in the way the Digicel has).

It is much wiser to have competitors, and to foster their entry into markets, and to hope that they prosper. When there is broad cooperation, everyone can win, and do so at a much increased level.

In the airline business, it is an article of faith that one should never advertise one’s safety record or compare it against one’s competitors. Why so? The reason is that reminding the flying public that fling carries with it some risks, is a sure recipe to reduce overall flying, which would reduce the profitability of each airline.

Airlines, therefore, must cooperate in what they use in their advertising (even while not appearing to do so).

This is not to say that competition is not a useful illusion. It’s very useful when trying to serve customers better than the shop down the street. It’s useful in coming up with new ideas and product innovations. It’s also quite useful when it comes to treating stockholders and employees well — in some countries, awards are given to companies that are able to create extraordinary work cultures.

But executives need to understand that competition is actually an illusion, which exists to teach us an important lesson — there is much more to be gained from broad cooperation, and competitive impulses are only useful when everyone can remember this bigger truth.

An acquaintance of mine is an “ultra-competitor”. When she plays any board game, she plays to win, and if she loses she is prone to throwing nothing short of 4-year old tantrums (including cursing, stamping feet, throwing game pieces, etc.) The net result of this behavior is that no-one wants to play with her… She doesn’t get that competition is just an illusion, and that the real enjoyment comes from elsewhere.