A More Productive Way to Think About Opponents
When scandals rock the business world, we all go scurrying to find big causes. Human greed. Structural economic pressures. Lax regulations. Psychological research, however, suggests that one cause may be as small as a metaphor in the mind.
Contesting theory, which my colleagues and I pioneered helps explain the cognitive roots of poor decision-making in competitive situations. The key to this theory is recognizing that abstract human experiences are mentally processed through metaphors. Invariably and unconsciously, we understand the abstract through the concrete. For example, we often interpret organizations (an abstract idea) through use of an organizations-are-plants metaphor. So we talk about "branch" offices, "pruning" the workforce, and "growing" the bottom line. When a person in love says, "look how far we've come," she is thinking of love through a journey metaphor.
Metaphorical interpretation is an unconscious process, but it can have profound implications.
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 come 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.
Through intense competition, the whole of society benefits. Competition serves excellence.
Still, contesting in sports can lead to recruitment scandals and aggression, and contesting in the marketplace can lead to insider trading, deceptive advertising, skirted regulations, and a host of other problems. But before an athlete or businessperson acts in a problematic way, a subtle shift has occurred. The 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? On a conceptual level, it is simple. To optimize performance and avoid ethical lapses, you just need to think in terms of the partnership metaphor whenever you're in a competitive situation. In reality, however, this is far easier said than done, because the processes of metaphorical interpretation are nearly instantaneous and normally occur outside of our conscious awareness.
To unlearn old mental habits and build new responses, you first need to learn to recognize and replace the triggers that pull you toward decompetition. These may include personal insecurities, desire for high reward, external pressures, perceptions of injustice, and so on. For example, when I'm debating a point with a friend, I become more combative — more interested in winning and less interested in truth — when I'm feeling insecure about my position.
Cognitive reframing is the second step. You can learn to recognize when you 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.
But, you might say, the "bottom line" is called that because it is, after all, the bottom line. Aren't we all in a battle for customers and profit? Yes, but focusing narrowly on "winning" rarely makes winning more likely, especially over the long-haul. In sports, for example, research shows that athletes perform better when they are fully absorbed in the challenge of the moment rather than distracted by score differentials. And in academic settings, those students who are more intrinsically motivated engage in deeper cognitive processing than do students who are focused on grades or other externals. Whether we are talking about athletes on playing fields, entrepreneurs in their workshops, workers in companies, or CEOs in their boardrooms, the best (and smartest) performance is facilitated by thinking that taps into the contest-is-partnership metaphor.
Famously, Gandhi didn't think of opponents as enemies; he thought of them as teachers, and this enabled him to remain open and creative. For similar reasons, the great basketball coach Phil Jackson talked of opponents as "partners in the dance." 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.