Virtual Learning Resource Centre

No contest: The case against competition

Book cover

by Alfie Kohn, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.


This book is a challenge to conventional wisdom. Is competition the most productive way to do business? Is there a place for mutual aid? Why should businesses play dirty? How can the business world change? The roots of competitiveness go back to childhood and change has to start in the home and the classroom!

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in January 2001)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

Questions needing answers

When Alfie Kohn gave a lecture at Ashridge several years ago, tutors and business managers attending it were sceptical. Responses ranged from "utter rubbish", to "the questions he asks need answers". Alfie Kohn lectures widely at universities and to teachers, managers and parents throughout the United States. He has written many books and magazine articles challenging the received wisdom on the role of competition in business, education and sport.

He does not pretend to have all the answers, but his questions stimulate thought on whether a prospering worldwide society can be sustained on the principle of competition, which means that if I have more, someone else will have less, and where scarcity is engineered by something called "the market" rather than existing objectively. Even companies which are thriving in a competitive environment cannot afford to ignore Kohn as an idealistic crank. Over the next two or three decades they will have to face many issues which will determine whether their current success continues, and whether the world which is the field of their operations is going to change so much as to compel a re-consideration of the value of competition, leading to at least some modification.

A number of business managers and writers have been recognising that some changes of perspective are called for. The late W. Edwards Deming, the quality guru, asked why businesses had to work on the basis of "if I get more you get less". He recommended finding a niche where you could be so good that people would flock to buy, not wasting effort in trying to drive other companies out of business. He considered that unsurpassable quality was a better aim than those represented by slogans such as "Beat Benz" and "Kill Kodak".

Back to the top

Current relevance of the questions

The questions asked by Kohn are contemporary and relevant. This summary is being written in a week when UN reports have indicated that three billion of the six billion inhabitants of planet Earth - half the population - have no access to clean water. Yet Western water companies make huge profits, salving their consciences by organising their customers to send donations to water starved regions.

This week also saw serious debate when the American President and the British Prime Minister declared that discoveries in the field of human genetic coding should be freely shared with other scientists so that the health of the whole world would benefit. This was suggested in opposition to the desire of certain companies in this field to ring fence the progress and to patent their discoveries so that their own shares could rocket on the stock exchanges.

Protests, often ill informed and marred by vandalism and violence, against globalism, in Seattle, Davos and other places, also show the strength of feeling against the way global business is conducted and highlight the need to seek rational answers to searching questions.

So much for the current context of Alfie Kohn's book, revised in 1992. It has become even more relevant in the new millennium. The value of the book is its analysis of the way in which competition is rooted in every department of human behaviour and how it permeates life from cradle to grave. Kohn gets down to the basic principles of competition and asks whether it is any way to run society. Readers may feel that his analysis would be more helpful if more practical alternatives were offered, though Kohn does recognise that there is no magic solution to the problems he believes competition causes.

Back to the top

The Number One obsession

He identifies as the key factor in competition the obsession that one must be number one in order to be regarded as successful. Life becomes a matter of all the time being busy seeking to outdo others. Victory must be sought in matters large and small. Some must fail in order for others to succeed, in economic life, in education, in sport, and the media presents almost all the news in terms of a series of contests. The acronym MEGA is used. It stands for "Mutually Exclusive Goal Attainment". From the nursery we learn to think of others as obstacles to our own success. There is this compulsion to rank ourselves against one another, to be better than the other. This is the personal root from which competitive systems arise.

Kohn describes the personal aspect as "intentional competition" and the systemic as "structural competition". Structural competition is the "win/lose" framework . Intentional competition is the individual desire to be number one. Understanding this individual desire may help to understand the wider societal aspects, though he suggests that it is the structural framework which creates the competitive spirit in the individual. He does not believe that competition is inherent in something called human nature. It is nurtured right from the kindergarten where soon we are measuring ourselves against others instead of just having fun together. And if teamwork is encouraged, it is usually based on intergroup competition, which becomes such a way of life that it impedes the function of the group itself by the development of intragroup competition. People compete within their own group as well as against the outside "enemy". Also the energy with which people pursue their careers is often based on a competitive aggression, beating others in the race for promotion, rather than just doing a good job and letting that be the route to career development.

Kohn sums up the views of social psychologists that there are three ways of achieving goals: competitively, by working against others; cooperatively, which means working with others; independently, which means working without regard to others. Even in a competitive culture the less competitive elements may be involved to some extent, but the drive is competitive. This book encourages the perspective that by helping you I am helping myself at the same time.

Back to the top

The fallacies of competition

In his first chapter Kohn introduces us to some of the fallacies upon which the primacy of competition is based. (He calls them myths, but a myth is a story which is not literally true, but which conveys a truth.) These fallacies are:

  • It's human nature to be competitive.
  • Competitiveness motivates us to do our best and makes us more productive.
  • Competitiveness makes for greater enjoyment in whatever we are doing.
  • Competitiveness builds character.

A chapter on each of these fallacies follows, together with another on the damage to human relationships which he perceives as caused by competition. There is a challenging chapter on whether cheating is a corruption of competition or its very consummation.

Back to the top

Is competition inevitable due to human nature?

Kohn disputes the idea that competitiveness is inborn, "nature" rather than "nurture". First he points out that the phrase "human nature" is somewhat indeterminate and that it is questionable whether any one attribute can be said to be manifested to some degree by everyone right across the human race. If you can say that competitiveness is just human nature, might you not also say that generosity or altruism are just human nature? Some researchers suggest that both antisocial and prosocial approaches are learned. The phrase, casually tossed off, "It's human nature", may be meaningless. Yet its use may give humans a sense of powerlessness if they see themselves as held in the iron grip of determinism. So people like Kohn are told to be realistic and face up to the fact (!) that human nature is greedy, aggressive, competitive, territorial, lazy, stubborn. So change and betterment are ruled out because we just are what we are. But you can't generalise in this way about some entity called human nature.

The book reviews the literature on the two sides of this argument in relation to competition. To some it is a basic instinct linked with survival. One author says "we indeed have a competitive code in our chromosomes". We must be genetically programmed to compete, because we do compete right through life. This begs the question because it ignores the fact that we may be the victims of being born into a framework of structural competition, where we shall be nurtured in the ways of competition until they seem "natural" to us.

Back to the top

The place of mutual aid

Kohn proceeds to bring evidence that "cooperation is at least as integral to human life as competition". The fact that anything gets done in human society is due to vast amounts of cooperation. The infrastructure of countries depends on cooperation, even if it is often government imposed or financed. Without it nations would not survive and competition itself would be impeded. (One might add that in spite of much criticism and room for greater effectiveness, the survival of civilisation since World War 2 has been largely due to the cooperative efforts of bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union. As I write Mozambique is an illustration of cooperation, even if some participants compete as to whom is the most cooperative.) The very idea of Society involves interdependence.

Some of the research into human behaviour is based on the study of animals, disregarding the fact that there are significant differences between humans and "other" animals. Nevertheless even in the wider animal kingdom the struggle for existence does not apply throughout. Examples are given of different species cooperating over the use of waterholes, of migration being preferred to battle, of baboons and gazelles working together to detect danger, of lapwings protecting other birds from predators. Of course the peaceful cooperation involved doesn't make as good television as the aspects which are "red in tooth and claw". In 1902 Petr Kropotkin wrote his book Mutual Aid in which he "reviewed the habits of species ranging from ants to bison". He concluded that " limited among animals to exceptional periods.... Better conditions are created by the elimination of competition by means of mutual aid and mutual support....Don't compete! - competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it! That is the tendency of nature, not always realised in full, but always present. That is the watchword which comes to us from the bush, the forest, the river, the ocean. Therefore combine - practise mutual aid.... That is what Nature teaches us."

Why then do many students of nature in the wild miss this perspective? Kohn quotes writers who suggest that the competitive view of humans gets transferred back into the animal kingdom. Hobbes' view of humans as engaged in "a war of all against all" is imposed on how we see the animal world; this view is then transferred back into our view of human beings. Yet the apostle of the struggle for existence, Darwin, doubted whether competition had any adaptive value among "men", particularly in the modern world. He adds, "Perhaps never before in the history of man has there been so high a premium upon the adaptive value of cooperative behaviour."

Back to the top

Learning competition in the classroom

Kohn goes on to show how the normal approach to learning from the earliest days at school is one of competition. Children vie with each other to please the teacher by getting in first with the answers; gold stars are distributed; praise is showered upon the smart child who comes top of the class. He or she learns to like being top dog. The less smart are made to feel failures and a blight is often cast upon their whole lives. The games played in school must have winners and losers. Parents encourage the competitive attitude by the pride they take in their children being top in class ranking or on the sports field.

In the family itself the same forces are at work. The dishes get dried and the little domestic tasks get done as the children vie with one another to be able to see themselves as mummy's favourite. Even the language of parental love fosters competition: "Who's the best little girl in the whole wide world?" Parents and teachers in many ways teach children that competition is inevitable. By this socialisation they "make the practice inevitable and the proposition true".

There is an interesting section in the book on cultures where the children are socialised in cooperation from an early age. Particularly in some primitive societies sharing goes beyond food and drink into the whole range of resources and activities. Among examples of this quoted by Kohn from various anthropologists are several Native American tribes, the Australian aborigines, Canadian Intuit, Israeli kibbutz children and others.

In short Kohn is saying that competition is a matter of social structure rather than human nature.

Back to the top

Is competition more productive?

More productive than what? The question which heads one of the chapters can be rephrased "Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them or alone?" Research data, he says, is near unanimous that "superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence". His quotations from research are mainly in the field of education, but he extrapolates the findings into all fields of human endeavour, on the grounds that the classroom begets the attitudes that rule human life. (As Wordsworth put it "the child is the father of the man").

Very relevant to business performance management are the three ways of rewarding achievement: winner take all; distribution proportionate to accomplishment; or equal distribution. The experiments he quotes gave no evidence that people work more productively under the first two compared with the third. If we measure performance by quality rather than by speed, numbers of problems solved or information recalled, then competition comes out very much less satisfactorily than cooperation. The first two ways of rewarding achievement also encourage the hostility and suspicion with which work colleagues often eye one another.

In the classroom cooperation means "Group participation in a project where the product of common effort, the goal, is shared, and each member's success is linked with every other's". This suggests that in the business situation intragroup competition is not likely to be productive within the company. And the word "coopetition" has been coined to describe the approach where companies which may compete in some areas may cooperate in others; this is particularly relevant in the relations between suppliers and the companies they supply. There is also scope for cooperation in situations where competition may often preclude the efficient use of resources.

A key factor in the failure of competition to produce superior performance is "to realise that trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things". Victory and excellence are two different concepts. One can attend either to the task in hand or to the enterprise of triumphing over someone else - and the latter is often at the expense of the former. Perhaps, he hazards, this is why politicians who are good at campaigning are not as good at doing what they are elected to do! Competitive considerations can distract from focusing on what one is doing, though I suppose whether the market will buy the results is relevant.

Legal activity is not necessarily concerned with finding the truth, but in the adversarial system it is a matter of competition to get the verdict wanted by the client. How does this contribute to social justice? Schools are described by Kohn's as " bargain basement personnel screening agencies for business and government?.winning and losing are what our schools are about, not education".

Back to the top

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are discussed. The latter is being motivated by things outside yourself, such as money or conferred status. In the former the motivation comes from our own desires. One researcher is quoted as saying: "while extrinsic motivation may affect performance, performance is dependent on learning, which in turn is dependent on intrinsic motivation". Other research suggests that extrinsic motivators, such as money as the only reward may undermine intrinsic performance in the long run, especially where creativity is fundamental. The inner motivation which produces results may be corroded and enthusiasm for the actual task diminished, in favour perhaps of the things money can buy. There is also intrinsic motivation in knowing that you depend on other people and they depend on you.

The issue of enjoying work or even of finding it fun also enters into the discussion. Where colleagues are potential enemies it is difficult to create an internal atmosphere of enjoying the activity. Seeing all the companies in the same general field as enemies creates tensions and anxiety which can take the mind off real excellence. Competition is basically unpleasant even if for some this is disguised by the love of the chase.

Another aspect of the tendency of competition to reduce productivity is its individualistic nature, in either the sense of individual people or individual companies (ie I or we must be number one).The holistic approach is better. Society is at its best when there is cooperation. This is not of course reflected in the Communist state, which is autocratic and oppressive and, while rejecting some forms of competition, introduces others, such as seeking power by conformity and being seen to uphold the party with enthusiasm. Kohn would include a consideration of small scale cooperative enterprises in his search for alternatives to the way we do things now.

Back to the top

If we all work together we all benefit

One of the axioms, unfortunately rarely followed, is that if we all work together we will all share success. Good leaders are those who inspire this mood, so that it becomes an intrinsic motivator throughout society. And if businesses fear that this will not appeal to their shareholders, let them remember that business is the key to how we run society, even more than the governments who think they run it. If society does not function well, then neither will individual businesses. Narrow short term self interest is in fact inimical in the long run to real self interest and even survival. When English villages had common grazing land, farmers had to learn that if they put too many cattle on the common land, then others would do the same and they would all end up with little or no grazing land. It would therefore be better to work out a cooperative scheme. It would be better for a crowd watching a procession if none of them stood on tip toe. Private gain often cancels itself out.

In answering the question "Productive for whom?" Kohn quotes a number of perspectives on some of the sacred cows of economics. He discusses the theme of scarcity and points out that the scarcity of goods is usually not objective or absolute. It is largely a matter of the insatiable appetites of people who are persuaded by the advertising industry that they must have more. The things they want more of are then said to be scarce. The United States with 5% of the world's population uses 40% of the world's resources. So scarcity as economists use the term is really a matter of distribution, the problems of which competition exacerbates where widespread cooperation would make life better for everyone, at least in the long run. We would have to banish the concept that we will always want more of something than we had before and more than the next person, thus redefining the economist's scarcity, which is the engine of competition.

As human beings we are being invited to consider what we are doing in our businesses. A couple of interesting quotations from Kohn:

"A competitive economic system offers itself as the best way to deal with scarcity (here defined as the inability of consumers to get enough) while quietly promoting scarcity. Capitalism works on the same principle as a glass company whose employees spend their nights breaking people's windows and their days boasting of the public service they provide". Sinclair Lewis in "Babbitt" receives a confession from a friend in the roofing business: "you know my business isn't distributing roofing; it's principally keeping my competitors from distributing roofing. Same with you. All we do is cut each other's throats and make the public pay for it".

He concludes his chapter on productivity with thought provoking words:

"let us not overlook, finally, the non economic costs of economic competition, which have been said to include a loss of community and sociability, a heightening of selfishness and such other consequences as anxiety, hostility, obsessional thinking and the suppression of individuality" (ie individuality in the best sense of freedom to make a personal and cooperative contribution.)

Back to the top

Is competition more enjoyable?

Sport is central to most people's interests in life, often as spectators, but also as participants, especially in schooldays. The famous aphorism "Winning is not the most important thing... It is the only thing" is dissected in the chapter bearing the above heading. Play is presented in contrast as an end in itself because it is pleasing. The moment results and competition come into it, much of the pleasure disappears. Alongside the excitement for the spectators there comes tension and physical and mental tension for the players.

The original idea of sport was to free us from seriousness. Not any more. The lessons from the "dog eat dog" tactics of the playing field are transferred to the supposedly more serious field of business. Yet playing was not intended to develop new skills of utility in life, unless you went to Eton or Harrow, when you could be prepared for winning at Waterloo. G.K.Chesterton got the right idea when he said of play " if a thing is worth doing at all it's worth doing badly". You still enjoy it even if you are not very good at it.

But this is not how you learn to play games at school. There you learn that it is a deadly serious business and if you let in a goal when you should have been able to keep it out then your popularity will plummet. Thus children are prepared for the serious competitive business of business. Their thinking is moulded into the competitive approach. Adversarial sports " not only reflect the prevailing mores of our society but perpetuate them".

Sport does not build character per se, "but builds exactly the kind of character that is most useful for the social system". Sports may prepare you for life, but for what kind of life? Sport is dominated by quantification and ranking, the obsession to be number one which characterises business life.

Following an analysis of the supposed advantages of competitive sport and of counter arguments, Kohn suggests ways of gaining pleasure from improving one's own performance, rather then by beating an enemy. A number of sports are mentioned which don't have to be competitive, such as dancing for pleasure, rock climbing, non competitive swimming. (The very next day after writing the above I observed an evening of Scottish dancing. There was no winning or losing but the atmosphere was one of sheer delight, with smiles on the faces of all the dancers.)

Why do we have to beat other people in order to have a good time? Terry Orlick is quoted as having written a number of books which offer satisfying games which are cooperative rather than competitive. (At Ashridge we use our delightful grounds for play activities which are part of serious courses on team work in which participants work together to overcome challenges. There are no winners or losers, yet everyone has a thoroughly enjoyable time and in subsequent analysis learn more about themselves as cooperative performers. It is encouraging to know that their employing companies are glad to pay for their attendance,)

Kohn also points out that to a large number of schoolchildren and young people, sport or games operate as a failure factory, illustrated by a large exodus from active sport into the world of the fan.

Back to the top

Does competition build character?

It is often said that competition builds character, either individual character or the strength of corporate character or culture. The chapter dealing with this in Kohn's book concentrates on the individual but has lessons for both aspects. What involvement in personal competition does to the individual has an impact on the company. Individuals become competitive under the influence of structural competition where the context of their life is one where it is assumed that competition is the only way to live and work. Structural competition "shapes our attitudes and beliefs, thus encouraging intentional competition". As we have seen, the win/lose framework of structural competition inspires the intentional competition where there is an inward personal desire to be number one. "We act competitively because we are taught to do so, because everyone around us does so, because it never occurs to us not to do so, and because success in our culture seems to demand that we do so."

Our personal psychological state will affect our will to compete either to do so or to avoid it. Kohn quotes research to demonstrate that very often people are competitive as a way of compensating for their low self esteem. If this is so then the effect of competition on character is negative, in at least this regard. Kohn describes self esteem as "the sine qua non of the healthy personality. It suggests a respect for and faith in ourselves that cannot be easily shaken, an abiding and deep seated acceptance of our own worth. Ideally, self esteem is not only high but unconditional; it does not depend on the approval of others, and it does not crumble even when we do things that we later regret. It is a core, a foundation upon which life is constructed".

As Abraham Maslow observed, "satisfaction of the self esteem need leads to feelings of self confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy, of being useful and necessary. But thwarting these needs produces feelings of inferiority.... that in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends". Research has suggested that many people who show competitiveness may do so because they are compensating for a self esteem deficit. One person talks incessantly about his achievements - competes for attention; another schedules the day with inordinate precision to demonstrate her superiority; another inveigles people into sharing their inner thoughts - part of competing for informational power. In the very effort to compensate for low self esteem they perpetuate it. This does not suggest that competition is helping to build character.

Back to the top

Compensating for low self esteem

Kohn offers the proposition that "we compete to overcome fundamental doubts about our capabilities and finally to compensate for low self esteem". The need to be the best all the time is an attempt to stave off a persistent sense that one is fundamentally no good. There is of course a distinction between "doing well" and "doing better than others". The process of accomplishment suffices for people of high self esteem without the need to outperform others. " If competitiveness is inherently compensatory, an effort to stave off feelings of worthlessness, the healthier the individual the less need to compete. If we use the word unhealthy to describe behaviour which is motivated by low esteem then "healthy competition" is a contradiction in terms."

Not all who are driven to competition through low self esteem are suffering from neuroses. "What we see in neuroses is only a magnified picture of what is often normal in a competitive culture" says Karen Horney. A sense of being in control is a feature of a strong character. In competition others are in control as you struggle to be better than them. Those who cooperate, work WITH rather than AGAINST others, feel more in control of their own lives. They also feel valued and valuable when their success is positively related to that of others and thus their self esteem grows. "Instead of contributing to our self esteem, beating other people contributes only to the need to continue trying to beat other people."

There cannot be much contribution to character development in a competitive situation, where all the time more people lose than win and experience grief from failure instead of enjoying the conviction that they are good people whatever happens, who are not dependent upon public acknowledgement. "Whenever a value is set forth which can only be attained by a few, the conditions are ripe for widespread feelings of personal inadequacy."

It is in the field of sport that this idea that competition builds character is strongest. What do the advocates of this word mean by character? Adjectives such as 'clean cut', 'red blooded', 'upstanding" are used. General MacArthur used to say that competition in sport made sons into men.

Another defence of competition among children is that it prepares them for the hard knocks of life. In fact unconditional acceptance in their early years is a much better preparation for meeting the difficulties of life. An initial sense of security will help them to weather later problems.

Competition is creative of anxiety in everyone who is involved in it. They will be anxious lest they lose, but often will be anxious about people's reaction if they win. They may also fear the hostility that winners receive from losers. This is not actually fear of success, but fear of competition. Psychoanalyst Rollo May maintained that competition was the most pervasive occasion for anxiety in our culture.

Competition diminishes character in the way in which it sees things in black and white. It cannot afford to engage in either/or thinking, where both sides of a problem are fairly analysed and opponents are recognised as having a valid point of view. Competition also conditions people to conformity, so that they will play safe and not query the bosses' viewpoint, even though it might be for the good of the business to do so. Risk taking may be good for the business but bad for the competitive promotion hopes of the risk taker. Creativity may similarly be dampened in the competitive situation, because it often means thinking outside the normal frame, with the risk of seeming out of step with most people. Wherever we look there seems little evidence that competition is good in developing stable, creative characters who know how to cooperate with others. And business and society will be the losers.

Back to the top

Interpersonal considerations

Competition, says Kohn poisons personal relationships, including those which would help a business to thrive. Camaraderie and companionship don't have much chance when we are competitors. There is a guardedness, a holding of part of one's self in reserve. One's closest colleagues may also be competitors for future promotions. Competition tends to make us treat people as abstractions, not as sharing common humanity with us. Martin Buber talked of the need to see fellow humans as "thou's" not as "it's", where each becomes "aware of the other and is thus related to him in such a way that he does not regard and use him as an object, but as a partner in a living event. You are not just a part of my world but the center of your own".

Other damage to personal relationships involved in competition is seen in envy of those who succeed where we fail; contempt for losers or quitters; inability to trust others; loss of empathy; and growth in aggressiveness, which is not, as some believe, drained off by being given scope in the competitive situation. The behaviour of many football players and their fans suggests that the aggressiveness produced by competitive rivalry is not very productive of sound human relationships. When we cooperate, we are inclined to like each other more; we will not view each other as enemies. We give and receive encouragement; we show sensitivity to the needs of others; we take a broader perspective on issues and see the other person's point of view. We communicate and we show trust. We move out of the "we and they" or "us and them" perspective. Cooperation still needs constructive conflict to bring out the best ideas. Mutual problem solving and honest debate are healthy and may well lead to achieving consensus, after all the issues have been identified and clarified, and positions modified in the light of this. Competitive approaches tend to harden positions and frustrate the finding of the best solutions.

Back to the top

The logic of playing dirty

It could be argued that cheating, bribery, insider dealing, are not the corruption of competition but its consummation. Individual cases of "sleaze" are picked out by business and governmental authorities, fanned by the media. A few major cases and many smaller cases of dishonesty or duplicity are highlighted and punished, but it is on a case by case basis and fails to see that they are but the outcrop of a system in which winning is the only goal. So the thrust of business life is generally to bend the rules wherever possible and to see what you can get away with in order to win. Bribes, sabotage, misrepresentation, exaggerated claims, lies or being economic with the truth, all seem less unacceptable when they are part of the battle to beat others, just as in wartime there are individuals whose official role is to practise deception. There is a worm in the core of the apple of competition.

The punishment of individuals who are caught out does not see that the nastiness is simply following through to a logical end the desire to beat others, by the use of any means available. "The aim of competition is to win and the temptation is to win at any cost." The structure of competition is the cause of the abuses. "If we are serious about eliminating ugliness we will have to eliminate the competitive structure which breeds the ugliness". Sissela Bok is quoted:

"The very stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success which so marks our Society, also generates pressures to cut corners. To win an election, to increase one's income, to outsell competitors - such motives impel many to participate in forms of duplicity they might otherwise resist. The more widespread they regard these practices to be, the stronger will be the pressures to join, even compete in deviousness."

A vicious circle is created "as we expect others to play dirty and feel justified in breaking the rules ourselves".

And sport mirrors the business and political world in the rapidity with which managers and players get dismissed for not being tough enough. In the whole field of human activity "our approval of winning at all costs is the secondary inducement to cheat; the primary inducement is the nature of competition itself".

Back to the top

Women and competition

Research quoted by Kohn suggests that in general males (at least American ones - but it doesn't stop there) are simply trained to win, whereas the consequences of failing in competitive situations seem less ego threatening for females than for males.

It has been suggested that this is because women fear success, but this is not true. Women tend to back away from the prospect of having to beat other people, not from successful achievement itself. Aversion to competition is a less loaded description than aversion to success. It does look as if it is competition and not success that separates men and women, though there are signs that the gap is narrowing, because women are listening to the voices which are urging them to accept competitiveness as appropriate and even healthy. Some women in business are modelling themselves on the hard hitting, single minded competitive men and losing the very qualities which could enhance the quality of working life for all.

Women, it is claimed by some researchers, tend to have a different ethical perspective. Fairness with its rights and rules takes second place for such women to responsibility and relationships. We need the complementarities of the sexes. Kohn feels that the move of many women toward the male orientation could lead to an abandonment of the female commitment to responsibility, and attenuation of the caring approach.

"To reaffirm the value of relationships is not to glorify dependence" says Kohn. "To cherish the part of our lives that involves connection with others hardly means subjugating one's self to others' needs. Neither does it mean that one has sacrificed self-directedness or autonomy". He hopes that as full economic and political freedom is achieved by women they will choose to stop learning competition and in its place truly affirm relationship. It will not be that they cannot enter the rat race, but that they WILL NOT.

Back to the top

Changing from competition

The question is asked, "How can we eliminate the competitive framework of our society so long as there still exists both a widespread belief that competition is desirable and a strong inclination to beat other people?" In other words structural and intentional competition reinforce each other.

Personal changes in desire and perspective are required but cannot easily be brought about. If we have become dependent on ranking ourselves in comparison with others, we need to wean ourselves away from the approach by easy stages. First by comparing our achievement, say in swimming, with an absolute standard, and then with what we did last week, and finally just swim for the joy of it. Cultivate awareness of our tendency to compete in the lesser things of life, such as going on a diet because someone else is slim, or dominating conversation to display one's own importance. Face up to the real reasons for our actions. If enough people do this, change will begin, but in the last analysis it is a matter of "discovering the institutional supports which maintain the existing undesirable behaviour and then design programs to alter these environments".

Why do people drive cars aggressively? Partly because courteous, careful drivers may impede others trying to beat everyone on the road. (I have noticed this after a visit to Ne w Zealand where driving is more relaxed.) There is a section in Kohn where he describes how to avoid change in the ubiquity of competition. We should treat individual misdemeanours as if they occurred in a vacuum unrelated to the overall structure of a competitive society; we should emphasise the need to adapt to things as they are, to fit in: advise people to look after themselves; to be realistic about the world as it is and not be na?ve or Utopian; to rationalise your discomfort, such as by saying that you want to help change the situation from within.

These devices for avoiding change have been very successful. The opposite course is to question the world as it is and not feel resigned to the necessity of the status quo, whether it is a local question of car parking or public transport or whether it is a querying of the foundations of our economic and political system. Look at the possibilities for cooperation in so many areas of public life and avoid the self fulfilling prophesy that you have to conform to survive.

Back to the top

Learning together

This section of Kohn's book is largely concerned with learning at school, because this is where belief is engendered in competition as the only way society and individual can prosper. It is also, however, relevant to the learning of later years and to the way in which training and education is run within businesses and by business schools. It is pointed out that teachers exude values even where they do not specifically teach them, by their choice of stories, by the order in which they are taught and by the tone of voice in which a character is mentioned. In many schools children still sit in rows of desks and are discouraged from talking to their neighbours. This tends to be replicated in many business skill and management courses. Serried rows of students in semicircular tables sit facing the course leader who is still often called a lecturer. (Ashridge has eliminated this traditional architecture in favour of people sitting round tables cooperating or, for some input sessions, the horseshoe style.)

Cooperative learning is the preferred style in Kohn's view. Knowledge of facts is consolidated by working together to apply them or to examine their relevance and to discover connections. The picture given of students learning together, and even from each other is to be preferred to the battle to display individual superiority. Self esteem, social interaction and achievement all benefit. The use of diverse skills, knowledge and learning ability produces a synergy where together the learners do better than on their own. " None of us is as smart as all of us."

Cooperative learning reduces the anxiety associated with competitive learning. It makes risk taking more acceptable, is emotionally more satisfying. It becomes "cool to learn", avoids the fear of being thought too clever. It reduces the likelihood of unthinking conformity which inhibits creativity and innovation. And it permits constructive conflict and the analytical skills involved. It encourages curiosity and the playing with ideas from which most important advances emerge. The survey of cooperative learning in practice offered by Kohn emphasises the process of facilitating cooperative learning in the absence of competitive devices and rewards, though perhaps he does not sufficiently stress that input has to be available, either from the teacher or by guided research. There are facts which have to be given and there still some things that have to be learned by rote. Is there any other way of learning the multiplication tables? Even here there may be virtue in letting students schedule the pace and timing of these less exciting but vital pieces of learning without which innovation and discovery cannot advance. However there is no need to control the processes where some rote learning is unavoidable by making them part of a struggle for supremacy.

Cooperative learning "transforms pupils from listeners into talkers and doers, from powerless pawns into participant citizens empowered to influence decisions". It gets away from "teachers spewing out facts and requiring students to spew them back". In an afterword Kohn looks at features of public life which are continuing the competitive strain, such as league tables of schools, based on examination results and hospitals ranked by throughput of "customers". Some lovers of competitive sports may be affronted by statements like "our lives would not be miserably impoverished in the absence of new records being set at the Olympics", or the characterising of tennis as such an intrinsically tedious game "that we manage to stick at it only by relying on the artifice of quantifying our triumph over someone else'".

Back to the top

What can we do about it?

We need books like "No Contest" to shake our confidence in the status quo and to lead us to consider whether there are alternatives that will better contribute to human happiness and success. This book is particularly controversial because it seems to fly in the face of everything we have ever been taught about education and business. But in a time when empowerment, intrinsic motivation, teamwork, personal responsibility are key elements of business theory and courses based upon it, there may be scope to see in Kohn's challenge an integrating theme to trends that are already emerging in business education. Towards the end of the book Kohn says that "there is scarcely an arena of human life which cannot be transformed into a cooperative enterprise". He recognises that he has not set out anything like a comprehensive guide for coordinating efforts in this direction. "Having concentrated my efforts on a critique of competition, I leave that task to others, confident that there will be no shortage of suggestions once our energies are freed from planning and participating in competitive projects and ....the structures that perpetuate them."

The reader may wish to respond to the invitation at the beginning of this summary to email their comments to me at Ashridge, so that we may together develop the debate and fill in some of the gaps that Kohn admits he has left.

Back to the top