“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
Research is now starting to illustrate what President Roosevelt so eloquently expressed many decades ago – that there is a certain point where competition becomes more of a drag than a lift. When it comes to intelligence, a competitive framework may be more of an interrupter than an accelerator.
According to new findings from researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and four other institutions, our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as in classrooms and work environments.
This discovery flies in the face of long-held ideas about intelligence and cognition that regard IQ as a stable, predictive measure of mental horsepower.
“The idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” says Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy at Caltech and one of the authors of the new study, which appears in the current issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. “Furthermore, this suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”
This new research, combined with Claude Steele’s work on stereotype threat, demonstrates that when it comes to our ability to think, more than just our capacity to think is at work. If we get feedback – explicitly or implicitly – that we are (or could be) under-performing in any way, our ability to perform up to our potential actually decreases.
How does this research impact the way we work and measure talent in the workplace? I am working with an organization right now that does forced ranking evaluations. By the end of a new hire’s first year, they are ranked in comparison to their peers. The differentials between the “high rankers” and the “low rankers” were relatively small at the end of the first year, but the differentials increased dramatically after each subsequent year. Not because the performance of the “high rankers” increased significantly, but because the “low rankers” got significantly worse: when we evaluated the performance metrics and rankings over a 5 year period, we found that while the “high rankers” improved incrementally, the performance of the “low rankers” decreased dramatically with each year.
The data was interesting enough to the company for them to pilot a program in one department in which the new hires will be evaluated and ranked against “excellence in core competencies” as opposed to ranked against each other. Although the pilot program has not yet run its full course, the supervisors are reporting that the questions from the new hires now focus on “how can I get better” instead of “how is everyone else doing.”
Competition works well when you have real competitors, but when you create competitors within teams, you interrupt the intelligence of the individuals within the team and the intelligence of the team itself.
-By Arin N. Reeves