When Is Competition Counterproductive?

I read with great interest Ron Ciancutti’s article entitled “The Jaws of Life” in the PRB March 2011, and as I often find myself doing, I agreed and identified with his points.

His basic point, at least as I took it, was that modern life and basic human nature seem to create competitive attitudes and actions where they aren’t necessarily needed nor do they lead to anything positive. In the extreme form, this can lead to violent behavior. His examples ranged from getting a picnic table for a family outing to dorm life in college and boxing matches in Las Vegas.

It made me think again about something that has always bothered me about the workplace and maybe it’s just human nature. I guess this is one of my pet peeves. It seems that more often than not a “them” and “us” attitude can develop among various levels, departments, divisions, work sections or even among staff members in a single space and function.

I’ve experienced it among my own staff, when in the course of a discussion someone says, “Oh, those folks in (insert department), they have plenty of time, they don’t do anything over there.” I’ve heard it from other department staff talking about staff in a different department. I’ve heard it from the most junior staff members to the most senior. I’ve heard it from a staff in one city talking about those in a totally different city. It has become especially acute as budgets tanked and suggested layoffs started becoming reality.

This just pushes my buttons and I don’t tolerate it very well. My response to them is, “How do you know what they do? How long have you worked in the (insert job) field? Have you spent days or weeks or even a few minutes finding out what they do?”

The response is generally, “Well, uh, no, but it just seems like they don’t do anything over there.” I normally interrupt at that point because I know what’s coming and say, “How would you feel if you found out someone was saying that about you?”

“Well,” they generally retort, “I work hard so they’d never have reason to say that.”

“How do they know you work hard,” I respond. “Have they been working side by side with you lately? Have they taken the time to ask you about your job?”

I’m not sure how much good my questioning does. Some people don’t seem to get the point at all and some seem to get the point, but then a week later I’ll hear them doing the same thing about someone else. It seems to be a trait of human nature.

I guess it comes down to how you approach human nature and information. Coming from an editorial background, I was trained to question things, to have at least three reliable sources before I drew a conclusion, especially when you are putting it in writing.

So before I would condemn someone for being a lazy lout who doesn’t have a purpose in life, I’d need a pile of credible information and personal knowledge. I don’t like gossip about people in any form, but scuttlebutt (i.e., idle chat around the water cooler) can be the least informed and most brutal.

My approach is to assume the best about people until there is some sort of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. My mantra is “Once is an enigma, twice is a trend.” If someone does something wrong or inappropriate once, I’m going to assume that they’re having a bad day and give them the benefit of the doubt. If they do the same thing again, a trend has now developed and I am going to begin to observe and get the facts. Then I can decide if the action is bad enough for me to take action or if I just may choose to avoid their company or take other approaches to dealing with them.

President Ronald Reagan used a phrase when dealing with the Russians on nuclear weapons: “Trust, but verify.” That rings true to me. It seems like the reasonable thing to respect people unless they give you reason not to; then verify your concerns and take appropriate action.

I guess it comes down to the old Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” My parents taught me that lesson through actions and words and I try to apply it in life.

Ron references the Japanese people and their conduct through the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster as an example of people who respect each other, respect their elders, treat each other civilly even in the face of the worst disaster most of them have ever experienced. There haven’t been reports of looting, riots or crime sprees.

I wonder how Americans would react. I’d like to think we’d handle it well, but recent examples don’t support that optimism (students protesting, union workers protesting, non-union workers protesting, democrats and republicans at each other’s throats, different religions at each other’s throats … I could go on but you get the picture).

I guess on a national level, I have to wonder: if we Americans can’t even respect each other more than this on a day-to-day basis, what’s going to happen in a crisis the magnitude of Japan? If we can’t get along as a people, what are we going to do when a common enemy presents itself: will we be too blind to see?

On a global level, on a globe that seems to be getting smaller and smaller, how can we hope to survive as a race if we continue to compete rather than cooperate?

We like to think of ourselves as an advanced species, but our actions would indicate that we haven’t advanced much further than the mouth of the cave where the first ape began discovering his or her opposable thumb.

I think it has to start at the individual level, so here I go. I’m going to take that first step from the cave. Maybe if I try to be more understanding, more forgiving, it will catch on, like the “Pay It Forward” movie. I’m going to try to treat everybody with respect that I expect of them towards me. I’m going to seek first to understand before jumping to conclusions. I’m going to apply the adage: God gave us two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we talk. I’m going to take the advice of a friend who, on a day when I was particularly blue, advised, “Put a smile on your face and soon you will feel it in your heart,” and I discovered it really works. Go ahead, try it, hold a huge smile for a minute and see if you don’t feel better.

Hey, I’m feeling less Cro-Magnon already … I’m beginning to walk upright and speak in sentences. My forehead feels less flat than it did. I may be on to something. I’ll let you know how this works out.