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When is Healthy Competition Unhealthy?
Most workplaces thrive on competition. Especially–
–law firms. I happen to know.
After sixteen years of working at one of the largest and most competitive law firms on the planet, I’ve come to accept the inevitable: my work is often a zero sum game.
Someone has to win. Someone has to lose. Welcome to the profession.
This reality hit me hard last week after a successful jury trial. I extended my hand to the losing party, but he pulled away with anger and harsh words. (His wife also gave me a big scowl.) What was I expecting, a hug? After all, the goal in court is to win, not to make nice.
Court isn’t the only place lawyers compete. We compete for clients. We compete for talent. We compete with other lawyers. We compete on behalf of our clients. So why should internal competition be any different?
In my early years of practice, I often wondered,
Why can’t my workplace be more egalitarian? It’s competitive enough outside these walls, why do we have to compete with each other?
Then, human nature kicks in.
I work harder than he does! So why do we get paid the same? She’s out of the office again? I’ve never seen anyone find more excuses to miss work. I’m the one who’s keeping this client happy. Shouldn’t I get the revenue credit?
Maybe things don’t appear even because they’re not. I guess that means I’m keeping score. Is that such a bad thing? Even the research suggests that workplace competition encourages productivity and innovation. Shouldn’t we just accept survival of the fittest?
Like it or not, workplace competition is here to stay.
But wait a minute - there are always two sides to the story. As I tell the jury, never make up your mind until you hear all the facts. Competition has its limits. In fact, other studies confirm that it promotes individualism and stifles teamwork. Unhealthy workplace competition – the kind that puts individual glory over the greater good – has a deadly effect on trust and collaboration.
To add another layer to the debate, I wonder what God thinks about workplace competition? I may be called to compete, but I’m also called to be an instrument of grace.
And grace isn’t a zero sum game.
1. What does it look like to pursue excellence in your work without compromising your faith?
2. How do grace and competition interact in your daily life? When the two conflict, what guides your choice between the two?
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on
The High Calling
. The image above was taken by
Tony the Misfit
of Nathan Sawaya's Lego art titled
The Courage Within.
john van sloten
To me, work is all about bringing glory to God. When we drive hard and excel; it's an act of worship. By getting every ounce out of what God's gifted us with, we're honouring him. And by making him the focus of our efforts, all that we accomplish is always held in humble perspective (what are our accomplishments next to His?) Unhealthy competition, on the other hand, is about beating the person next to you; about comparing in the wrong direction.
John I agree. I think as Christians we must engage in competition in a way that reflects the fact that we believe Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross for our sins. I have written extensively about this at my blog Compete4Christ
If you check it out start by reading Pillars 1,2 and3 and go from there. Feedback welcome
Good point, John. For me the trick is not slipping from healthy competition into something unhealthy. I may say to myself all day long that I'm being sharpened, and sharpening others, to use the Biblical idea of competition.
But as soon as it turns into a zero-sum game in my mind, I'm in trouble. Instead of working for the greater good of a project, organization, or community, I'm just trying to beat the other guy because I'm jealous of what the other guy has.
I wouldn't say work is all about bringing glory to God. In everything, not just work, we should bring glory to God. Work is essentially a punishment for sin. To the point, we should use our gifts to the fullest extent, how can you do that without competition? I don't think you can. A good example is the work-place of non profit company that has no competition. The element of sink-or-swim in the for-profit company, leads to competition in which everyone must create synergy by using their talents in the right place.
Nick, I would disagree with you that work is punishment for sin. In Genesis 2:15, we read that God placed man in the garden to cultivate it and keep it long before he ever sinned. In fact, we were created to work.
I found this 'article' doing a search seeking out when competition is wrong for Christians. We all must see that competition is unavoidable in this life. Christians would be jobless if we were not to partake in any form of competition because we compete for jobs. We compete for all sorts of things, but the real question is when does it become wrong. OR does it ever become wrong?
I have a friend who has children 'competing' in a Bible Bee. It is a Bible Memory competition and the question was posed, "What ought the proper motivation for this sort of competition be?" Is it okay for you to desire to do better than everyone else in the competition, due to the nature of the competition?
The second question that Ms. DiMickele asks here is a good one, of which I do not have the answer to. I will give more thought today concerning this and will ask around in my church this afternoon what people think about this idea and hopefully get back with you all soon.
Sam Van Eman
Susan, great to see your experience-based writing here. I'll tell you, when competition is healthy, I love it. It drives me, keeps the standard high, encourages efficiency and creativity. And I can easily extend grace in this context.
But when it's bad, like when someone in conflict with me will get their way and (in my opinion) pollute the system, I can't back down without disliking the person even more. To press on in the conflict means I risk compromising my own standards; to quit means I'm letting the "bad guy" win. Feels like a bind when neither pressing on nor quitting seem right.
All this to say, I'd never make it on Survivor. Fortunately, my workplace contains the healthy variety of competition.
Good dialogue. I'm joining to view other commentary.
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