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Competing for Creativity

Competition can be deeply damaging to workplace relationships and to organizations more generally. For example, in highly competitive organizations, people are more likely to hide information or even to lie to protect themselves and pursue their own agendas. However, there are some exceptions. It is possible for competitive relationships to be both healthy and exceptionally creative.

Xi Ouyang, Zhiquiang Li, and Genglin Gui recently published a new research article, “The interactive effects of intragroup cooperation and competition: toward a perspective of paradox,” in the journal, Management Decision, that examines this idea. They examined teams of workers in high-technology companies in China. They found teams were more creative when they possessed both competition and cooperation. This seems somewhat paradoxical. These teams believe both that they had a “win-lose relationship” with their teammates, and also that they “want each other to succeed”.

Given that these seem to be opposites, how is it possible for both to be true? Ouyang, Li, and Gui do not address this question, but perhaps a story from another source might.

Many people consider Steve Alba to be the Godfather of Pool Skateboarding. In 1976 and 1977, people were told to drain their swimming pools to preserve water in California because of severe drought. During this time, Alba and his friends—the Z Boys—would hop over people’s fences and skateboard in their pools, that is, until the police chased them away. Although their trespassing was illegal, their exploits played a significant role in turning skateboarding into the international sport it is today.

Empty pools presented an opportunity that did not really exist before. There were no skateboard parks. However, pools presented unique surfaces and edges for skateboarding. The shapes of the pools inspired the Z-Boys to try tricks and techniques that no one had tried before, and these became the foundation of modern skateboarding tricks.One boy would try something. If it worked, the others would celebrate. However, they would not stop with celebration. They would egg the next boy on to try something new and different and better. It became a competition to invent the next best thing. They wanted to beat each other with the next, coolest trick, but they also celebrated it when one of their friends came up with a trick that was better than theirs. Their competition improved their relationships and led to impressive creativity.

In my experience, cultures of creativity-generating competition are hard to generate and maintain. Flirting with competition can be precarious, because it can easily devolve into relationships of shame and blame, sometimes without people realizing that shame and blame have quietly emerged. Creating and preserving cultures of creativity-generating competition requires positive leadership. This kind of leadership involves exhibiting unusual virtues, and others following because they are elevated or inspired by those virtues. For example, one person may have the courage to try something new, and then other people follow by trying new things as well because they admire that courage. Then, a person (perhaps the same one, perhaps a different one) leads by generously praising a person whose contribution is better than one’s own. That generosity elevates others, who also seek to praise those who beat them, rather than put them down. Virtuous action inspires people, but it also takes effort, so when people stop leading, healthy competition can quickly devolve into unhealthy competition. Those who have experienced these cultures of creativity-generating competition know how exhilarating it is to have relationships like these, and usually think it is worth it.

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