Who Are You at War With? How Do You Win?

Abundance Growth mindset Management


Key Point: I believe we need to profoundly change our thinking about competition and opponents in the world of business. We need an abundant versus scarcity mindset. Think this is softheaded? The research of Dr. David Shields as reflected in his recent Harvard Business Review blog, A More Productive Way to Think About Opponents, will hopefully help us reframe the way we approach competition. The following is an excerpt highlighting important elements of his message:

“For some, ‘contests’ are mentally processed through a contest-is-partnership metaphor. This leads to genuine competition (the word competition literally means “to strive with”). Competition, so understood, pits people’s immediate interests in opposition, but it does so to serve a larger mutually-beneficial purpose. Sports competition, for example, allows people to experience the exhilaration and excitement that comes from the sweet tension of the game. In business settings, competition in the marketplace can promote those values we all read about in our economic textbooks: excellence in efficiency, innovation, service, and production.”

Dr. Shields notes that through intense competition, the whole of society benefits. Competition serves excellence. However, what happens if this partnership metaphor, which underlies genuine competition, is replaced by a metaphor of war?

“Once the war metaphor is unconsciously activated, our perceptions, decisions, and actions shift to fit the battling motif. Instead of being understood as a form of mutually beneficial partnership, our brains start telling us that we are in battle and we need to think and act like a soldier under fire.

Since “striving with” is replaced by “striving against,” we call it decompetition. Decompetition invariably leads to problems both in terms of productivity and ethics.

In abbreviated form, the chart below suggests a few of the key elements associated with competition and decompetition as manifest in a business context:”


So what does this mean practically, without being mushy and naive?

Character Moves:

  1. Change the metaphor to striving versus beating. Rather than going to war with competitors, think about the benefit gained from striving for excellence. Use the partner metaphor rather than the battle metaphor. NBA Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, referred to opponents as “partners in the dance.” Similarly, the famous UCLA college basketball coach, John Wooden, had his players concentrate much more on their own excellence rather than beating the competition. Recognize when you’re getting sucked into destructive decompetition. Like Dr. Shields points out after tons of research, “[the] reality is that thinking of any contest as a battle or war tends to narrow focus, constrain creativity, elevate dysfunctional stress, and reduce appropriate risk-taking. In the end, such thinking can easily degenerate into an ‘anything goes’ mentality that excuses unethical behavior if it appears to serve the short-term bottom line.”
  2. Learn how to reframe the mindset and situation. Shields suggests that we can learn to recognize when we are slipping into decompetition and deliberately ‘reframe’ the situation in a manner consonant with genuine competition… “Learning to reframe takes effort and practice, but one strategy is to use a simple mental checklist. You need to frequently ask yourself the basic questions of work and life: What ultimate goals am I pursuing? What is really motivating me? How am I viewing my relationship with others? As trite as it may sound, we most often get off-track because we lose sight of what is really most important.”
  3. Do we want market share? Growth? The promotion over the next person? Of course we do. But be abundant and strive to be excellent in every way. Benefit from what you can learn from “partnering” with your competition. Respect them as teachers and motivators for excellence versus getting caught into the negative trap of beating them in battle. 

Authentic competition in The Triangle,