Volume 5, Number 18 -- May 6, 2008

As I See It: That Competitive Bug

Published: May 6, 2008

by Victor Rozek

It has become an article of faith that competitiveness is inherently good, historically inevitable, and the fountainhead of economic dominance. It's rare that business-related nouns appear in print without their default companion adjective "competitive." The job market, global markets, wages, and prices all share the same pugnacious descriptor. As any first-year business student will attest: in order to be successful, companies must pursue competitive advantage by developing competitive solutions and executing competitive strategies.

It's a word that describes everything and explains nothing.

With the emergence of India and China, and the maturation of the European Union, old economic relationships no longer apply. Yesterday's underdogs become tomorrow's winners; former creditors survive on chronic borrowing; and servant states become masters as the availability of cheap, abundant resources recedes into distant memory. Still, the same strategy remains in play: we compete intra-company and inter-company, nationally and internationally, pummeling each other from habit, running ever faster toward a retreating destination.

Given the level of global interconnectedness, being "competitive" may prove to be more anvil than adjective--holding us back rather than propelling us forward as is commonly assumed. The nature of competitiveness has changed, as has its usefulness. At one time, a company was competitive in its employment practices if it offered livable wages and full benefits. Now it means the opposite. For a global corporation, being competitive has more to do with reducing costs by suppressing wages.

The dogma of competitiveness is nothing if not exhausting. It's chasing and being chased, ever fearful of losing ground, without pause for rest and enjoyment. The less an individual, a company, or a nation can afford to lose, the more winning at any cost becomes both acceptable and inevitable. And the increased use of force and fraud testifies to a rising desperation to win. Nationally, a form of competitive fraud, as practiced by lending institutions, launched the economy into recession. Internationally, highly militarized nations competing for economic advantage by chasing dwindling resources increase the likelihood of prolonged and escalating conflicts. For those on the barbed end of the stick, the price of compulsive winning is always some degree of suffering. Jobs are lost, homes are repossessed, natural systems are damaged, investors are cheated, wars are fought.

It is therefore no small irony that, for many adults, one of the gifts of aging is discovering how unimportant competing really is--how success does not require a corresponding failure, but is actually linked to the success of the whole. Maturity reveals how childish and futile comparing yourself to others is, and how much richer we become when everyone contributes to, and benefits from, winning. The recognition comes in part because the body is no longer able to endure competitive activity; but there is also a profound shift in consciousness--the realization that we're all in this together, wholly interdependent, subject to the same pain and want, sharing the same fragile planet. There is an understanding that a vast array of skills and contributions are necessary to maintain the lifestyle to which we've become accustomed, and that under the old competitive model, every winner produces losers, often needlessly. When Wal-Mart opens a new store, it instantly seals the fate of dozens of local small businesses. Conventional wisdom says that the small business owners were not competitive enough to survive, but that's like asking a tethered goat to compete against a crocodile.

Arguably, the very quality that is credited with building our economy has peaked in usefulness, and is now harming it. As is becoming evident, all actions have global repercussions. Industrial emissions in one nation affect the climate in all others. Growing food for bio-fuels in one country causes hunger in another. Poverty and oppression in one nation contributes to instability in its neighbor. How useful it is to create winners and losers under these circumstances is an arguable question.

Still, competitiveness remains as much a part of the American psyche as rugged individualism. Americans love a contest and we love to win. We strive to be the best, the brightest, the most innovative, the richest, fastest, mightiest, and most generous people on the planet. We are a curious, inventive, and inclusive culture whose people take rightful pride in being productive, affluent, and free. From eggs to egos we are a super-sized nation and it works for us, thank you.

All the more startling to have someone suggest that our competitiveness is not a matter of superiority, or market forces, or rugged individualism, but an accident of bio-geography.

Sharon Begley, writing in Newsweek, recounts an intriguing discovery. Social scientists have long been aware of fundamental differences between Asian and North American cultures. Asian societies tend to value the whole over the individual. Conformity is prized, social roles are clearly defined, the common good is more important than the success of any individual, and outsiders are looked upon suspiciously. In American society, differences are valued, social roles are fluid, individual rights often trump considerations of the common good, and outsiders have been accepted. Although the differences are easily observable, the reason why certain societies evolve to value collaboration while others favor competitiveness has not been entirely clear.

"Now a team of researchers has come up with a surprising explanation," writes Begley. Our differences may be less the result of merit than microbes--"disease-causing microbes" to be exact. The theory is elegant in its simplicity. "Societies that evolved in places with an abundance of pathogens. . . had to adopt to behaviors that add up to collectivism, for reasons of sheer preservation. Societies that arose in places with fewer pathogens had the luxury of individualism, which is less effective at limiting the spread of disease but brings with it other social benefits, such as innovation."

In tropical regions, pathogens abound and people tend to develop strict social mores--from food preparation to restrictions on marriage--that enhance group survival. Maverick behavior is dangerous; outsiders bring more pathogens; and one nonconforming individual can threaten the entire tribe. Group-oriented societies, says Begley, include "Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China, and Japan," nations which, due to their geography, have endured the highest preponderance of pathogens.

As people moved north from the equator, pathogens became less of a concern. Individualism became a viable survival strategy. The United States and the countries of Northern Europe are examples of societies that evolved with fewer native pathogens and thus had less need for conformity and collaboration. Competition strengthened rather than weakened the whole.

But globalization makes geography irrelevant. By extension, the behaviors that evolved in response to biological factors may also be less relevant than they were in the past. Which is one reason why cultural behavior is rapidly shifting. The behavioral flow, however, has been unidirectional. Developing and developed nations have only become more competitive, more desirous of winning, more intent on domination.

Ideally, combining the strengths of both cultural types would produce optimal results. Collaborative and tribal cultures are better at ensuring that no one is left behind. Competitive cultures tend to be more dynamic and innovative. In IT parlance, it is the difference between the generative possibilities of open source, versus the constraints of proprietary software. Collaboration in pursuit of excellence and problem solution--in all spheres of human endeavor--is a worthy goal for a shrinking planet with growing problems.

Winning at any cost has a face. It is Enron, and Karl Rove, and athletes on steroids, and Rupert Murdock pandering to the Chinese government. It is the triumph of the illegal and the unethical; the aggrandizement of the narrow agenda over the common good. Global problems are not likely to be solved by "winning" alone. Today, more than ever, Ben Franklin's words delineate the choice before us: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

It's a decision too important to be left to the microbes.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
Shannon O'Donnell, Victor Rozek, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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