Making Workplace Competitive

Address delivered at HR Meet of Mahindra & Mahindra on Dec 18, 2013
[This is the first part of my speech “Making our Workplace Competitive, Fair and Inclusive.” It focuses on making the workplace competitive. The second and the third parts will follow soon.]
The theme for my talk is “how to make our workplace competitive, fair and inclusive.” I beg to submit that the answer is “Promote dialogue and sensitivity within the organisation – the latter through ‘appreciation of reality.’”

The very first word is ‘Competitive.’ It is all about achievement. Not just achievement but it is about relative achievement. We must get it right. So here is the story.

How good player can we become

This story is about Tim Gallwey who was a tennis coach. He organised a tennis tournament at a sales conference. But it was with a strange rule:
winner of each match would be out of the tournament, and the player who lost would advance to the next round. Think of this: the loser was rewarded for losing, and the winner was sent to the side-lines. If this is the structure, what is the point of playing if “winning” got you nowhere?

Each player had to confront the question of why he was playing the game. The conventional answer, especially among salespeople, is that they play to win. Tim’s answer was that there is a better game to play, and that is to play to learn, to play to fulfil your own potential.

If they lost to their opponent, they would be treated as a winner. In the face of this, they were free to shift their focus from winning or losing to simply playing for the experience itself, playing to see how good a player they could become. Philosophically, they were asked to stop dancing to the tune defined by the external world around them and encouraged to play according to their own internal message. The tennis tournament offers a metaphor for what is possible in the workplace. [Unquote]

There are three catch phrases here – ‘shifting focus to playing for experience itself and playing to see how good a player we could become,’ ‘stop dancing to tune of external word around us,’ and ‘play according to internal message.’

This neatly sums up the very first basic question: ‘Who is it that we are competing against?’ And we just got the answer. We are competing against ourselves. Each one of us is there not really to beat others, which might be incidental, we are there to discover ourselves, create a meaning in what we do.

Have we got it right? Let us see what Michael Jordan says:
“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
Isn’t that interesting? We are listening to one of the all-time great in basketball game. His biography on the National Basketball Association (NBA) website states, “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” He is not even referring to any of his rivals, but he is alluding to his failures as learning experiences.
If you have watched Sachin speaking on success mantra, he does not even refer to anyone else. In order to succeed, prepare yourself hard, he says.
I was once making a presentation about Performance Management System in the company where I worked. One manager asked me, “Please tell me what I should do to be among the top 10%.” Instead of answering a question directly I asked him what advice would he give to his son or daughter if they ask ‘Dad, tell me how can I rank first in the class?’ The only answer is ‘Do your best!’
The point I am making is that the real competition is against oneself only. Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about competition. Kohn dropped a bombshell on the deeply held beliefs of many managers when he said, ‘superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.’
Compete against an external competitor, but promote dialogue within the organisation

Deming said the same thing in different words. But why then we encourage competition? Dr Pfeffer and Dr Sutton say that employed persons do “intellectual tasks that require learning and inventing new ways of doing things are best performed under drastically different conditions than tasks that have been done over and over again in the past. People are better at learning new things, being creative, and doing intellectual tasks of all kinds when they don’t work under close scrutiny, they don’t feel as if they are constantly being assessed and evaluated, and they aren’t working in the presence of direct competitors.
In other words allow people space, allow them to work and learn at their pace, and guide them but do not be evaluative.
The next question is ‘Is competition bad always?’ Obviously not, but only in certain circumstances. Competition does something good to an organisation when it is external, and not internal. There cannot be greater mistake than promoting competition within an organisation. With the present day set up, competition is often promoted among business units of the same organisation. This generates very objectionable behaviour. Accounts get fudged. Accidents are neither recorded nor reported. People are employed and paid on voucher to avoid getting counted in manpower numbers.
This is what Toyota says, “The spirit of competition is one of the principles of The Toyota Way which states “Competition further improves our organisation and its ability to add value.” The key here is that Toyota wants most of the competition to be with other companies and not within different departments.
So we know two things: Internal competition is bad, competition with external entity may be ok. How do we promote internal competition? First we must take a look at the compensation system. As Prof Cliff Norman says, If you see reasonable people doing stupid things then look at the reward system.’ We must do everything to root out internal competition. I read about the reward policy of PPG of USA with whom Asian Paints had a joint venture. It made three statements: Reward those who have performed outstandingly, reward those who have been over a period been stable and consistent performers, and reward those whose performance has taken a big leap forward!
I like what Dr Jeffery Pfeffer says, “Pay people well, and do everything to take their attention off money.” Meaning: make work interesting.
How to promote competing against oneself
And let us return to the other aspect – competing with oneself. How to promote it? There may be many ways, but those among you who have experienced a strong mentoring will readily agree with me when I say ‘Have a dialogue with the concerned person.’ I had the same boss for thirty years. Some of my conversations with my boss were very disturbing, unnerving, many of those made me uncomfortable, yet I recognize that without those conversations I could not have grown – my performance would have been worse.
The challenge before HR Manager is how to induce and promote such dialogues?  There is no ready-made solution. We have to devise our ways, we have to experiment, the organization consists of people at all maturity levels, so experimentation gains greater importance, but the direction is now clear.