Use Competition to Spark Performance: No-One wants to Come 2nd

"I'm a natural born winner"

In olden times, one way to settle wars was for a tribe to send out their best warrior to fight. The outcome of the dispute would be settled on the basis of the last man or last woman standing. More recently we built our own Colosseum in Dublin (Aviva Stadium) and regularly send out Robbie Keane and the lads, dressed head to toe in Umbro rather than chainmail, to do the same for us.

Ireland Vs. Czech Republic: I was at the Ireland versus Czech match this week. It started great, got dull in the middle and finished on a high when we equalized (a high might be a bit of a stretch; it’s hard to get excited about friendly games). I was there courtesy of the Amateur League based on a small consulting job completed and paid for under the Barter System (2 free tickets). I certainly was not there on the basis of any personal prowess. Despite playing soccer for many years, the reality was that I kept the substitutes bench dry and was brought along to tell jokes on the bus. If my team were guaranteed victory, for example if the score was 62-nil in our favour, I’d be taken on as a key defender for the last 3 minutes. I had the same boots for about 12 years; they never wore out! Yes, everyone in my family is talented; even the sewing machine was a Singer (the old jokes are the best).

Golden Moments: One time I was asked to play for a team that was cobbled together at the last minute. We were playing against a group of inmates in St. Patrick’s Institution (young offenders prison). My team was short of a goalkeeper and they put me minding the net. I can’t actually remember the final score, but we lost by a sizeable margin. It was hilarious (for the inmates). There were about 100 prisoners standing around watching the match and slagging non-stop. A real confidence builder.  I’d hazard a guess that it was the single best day of their entire incarceration. There were probably guys released that morning, climbing back in over the wall to see the rout. That particular team never asked me to play again (they never wrote, they never phoned!).

Business Links: In business organization, we tend to shy away from competition – feeling that it is somehow a bad thing. We call people colleagues and we encourage collegiate behaviour. Yet if competition works in sport, could we deploy this in business? Several times I’ve been involved in organizations where we set up alternative teams to look at a key idea. “You will be making a presentation on the topic of X. You will be presenting this to the Executives. The company will adopt the ideas from the winning team. Enjoy”. The groups almost run out the door in the attempt to get started. Why? Because no one likes to come 2nd. The writer Ian McEwan (Saturday) brilliantly described this as ‘an irreducible urge to win; as biological as thirst’.

A simple idea to put extra zip into your teams? Try it.

Paul Mooney

PS I was talking to someone last week about the delicate balance between being authentic and being ‘too-straight’. He relayed the following story that occurred recently in a small country town. A new and very proud mother was wheeling her child in a buggy to the local shop. A local woman, not the most popular in the town, dressed in full hairnet, stopped her and was admiring the child:

“Oh, he’s a dote. And what did you call him?”
The mom answered: “Simon”.
Not at all convinced about ‘Simon’ as a macho name, she said:
“Well, he has the 10 fingers and the 10 toes, sure at least he’s healthy”.

Know someone who’d benefit from reading this blog? Forward it on or ask them to contact paul@tandemconsulting.ie and we’ll add them to the mailing list.

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About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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