At one point in my job, I started receiving reports that had important metrics for our organization listed along with all the other similar organizations in our state. The problem, at least as I perceived it, was that the reports were in alphabetical order and it was sent as a PDF. I couldn’t easily see where we rated against our sister organizations. I took the time to copy the data into an excel spreadsheet so I could manipulate it and sent it to my supervisor thinking she’d be delighted that I made sure that she could easily identify our standing vs everyone else. In our next conversation my boss questioned why I took the time to do it, which seemed self-evident to me. I pointed out how we needed to see our ranking so that we know where we stand vs. the rest of the pack. I was then informed by the head of our organization that our ranking is not a consideration. All we had to do was meet performance, i.e. the minimum acceptable spec. I was flabbergasted because the attitude was such an alien thing to me. From my earliest work years up until this latest job I was in technical sales. Competition and ranking is everything. How much have you done and how can you top it are questions asked regularly in nearly every organization around the globe. Some variant of the leaderboard, be it an actual leaderboard, or just a commission statement was always in the periphery of all of our activities to further the competitive attitudes in the group.
It isn’t just sales. Every business with any size measures virtually all of its operations to identify where it can push for greater efficiencies. This priority stems from the advent of the industrial age and the universal adoption of the philosophy that time is money. The less time you spend on a task the less cost per task. This is all easy to manage as it’s all quantifiable. Things like sales, market share, or cost per widget, are very easy to measure. Therefore, everything is measured, often ranked against a group, with an eye toward driving all the players towards improvements. Ultimately this tactic results in higher productivity and commensurate profits. From surgeons to fast food workers, everyone is tracked and there is a push to get to the top of the rankings. It all makes sense when you consider the capitalist underpinnings of the economy. Competition is hard wired into the workforce, well unless you are affiliated with a government agency where the focus is meeting the legislative edict without errors. Even that attitude makes sense as there is no competition with the government, only adherence to the law.
This trend of competition and competitive attitudes has been growing for many years. It’s even seen in the language we use in our organizations. It’s no longer the accounting department or the sales group, it’s the accounting team and the sales team. Everything is a team. Yes, the purpose of using the word “Team” is multifaceted in that it means shared workload and working together. But teams are also there to compete and to win.
Sometimes Competitive Attitudes are not always a win for everybody. I’ve written about the effects of extreme competitive culture in the workplace before. My two marquee companies are Amazon and Netflix. Both organizations are known for their brutally demanding and highly competitive environments. These two are just the companies most recently commented on in my blog and podcast. There are many others in the news. One recent example is Wells Fargo. The banks competition driven misbehaviors have had a very long tail. These are the companies that are so overly competitive that the system breaks down in some way, shape or form and very publicly. But sometimes the breakdown is in an organization competing so effectively that it wins against all it’s competitors, which is why anti-trust exists. If you win too much then there is limited competition, both the market and the company suffers. The market sees prices escalate. We have seen this with computing, healthcare, and in data services, i.e. cell phone bills. The company also suffers, but this happens over a longer timeline. Eventually the winning company is so focused on keeping it’s position it runs into the innovator’s dilemma. The Innovator’s dilemma is the idea that if you are making a ton of cash on an old and dominant business model, it’s hard to transition to one where you are making less cash even if the new tech or process is eventually going to put you out of business. Think blockbuster versus Netflix. Blockbuster was late to the streaming party and consequently is out of business. We’ve mostly seen this in technology but it happens in all markets. Eventually the old market gets displaced by a new technology or process it can’t compete against, but by that point the damage was done to the consumer. We can see this happening today with cable / satellite tv services and streaming. The cord cutting movement is growing by leaps and bounds. AT&T, the current owner of DirecTV as I write this, has adopted a strategy of squeezing every penny out of its existing customer base to offset the losses from the cord cutters. At the rate they are going, I can see where the entire DirecTV operation becomes as antiquated an idea as the video rental store. I think this is why some very seasoned CEO’s, after retirement, make the occasional statement making a point that competition and losing every now and again can be a good thing. It’s not their belief in capitalism or in keeping pricing down, it’s all about keeping their own organizations healthy. They like when their organizations are hyper competitive, but not so competitive that they eventually implode.
Another way that competition can hurt the organization, and really the point of this article, is at the individual level. It’s really about the decision-making by individuals who run the organization. In some instances, competition is so fierce that the entire environment becomes incredibly caustic. The manager who is so aggressively trying to beat everybody else they perceive that they are competing against makes decisions on metrics and goals that are unobtainable. In addition to tremendous stress for those responsible for hitting the targets it can also result in a sort of corporate anemia. The more you cut the organization to drive profitability, the less the organization is able to respond to the needs of the product and the customer. Think of it like rot on the inside of a tree. On the outside everything’s looking great, but on the inside the tree is so starved for nutrients it eventually falls over.
A good question to ask is how this all develops? Why isn’t there a culture of balanced business management practices that proliferate throughout organizations and economies? If that culture existed then the caustic managers would be ejected from the organization for not aligning to the culture of balanced operations. I think the answer can be found by looking at the way that businesses exist today. Most businesses grow from first generation owners. These owners have gotten to where they are at, in part, because they are paranoid and highly competitive. If they aren’t sleeping, then they are working. They’re also paranoid of competition. You see this quite a bit in the tech space where competition is vicious, winners usually take all and major underpinnings of the market change year to year. A culture of “kill or be killed” develops and new entrants to the company adopt this highly competitive attitude to advance in the ranks. Eventually even after the founders are gone the culture still remains and becomes more intense over time. This is where my philosophy of Caustic Corporate Competition originates from. My theory is that competition in most organizations is so fierce that unless your actions show that your every thought is about the company and winning, then you don’t get ahead. It’s the person reading and responding to emails at 3am after a full day of work and who is triple booked with meetings who tends to get promoted again and again. Work and life balance is a topic discussed by leaders in these companies but the reality is only the work obsessed and most competitive ascend to the highest levels. The balance conversation is there only because it has to be for liability purposes and to placate the group of people who believe in it. “Balance” is also a grey term. For some one hour a night doing something not work related constitutes good balance. I promise you, there are few C-suite inhabitants who have an entire workforce that equally balances their work and life.
My blog, this podcast and eventual book have discussed the subject of caustic corporate competition before. What I haven’t done, at least not yet, is to take a closer look at the personality types involved. Many people have heard of Type A personalities vs. Type B personalities, but there are actually four types in this continuum.
The term “Type A” originated in the mid 20th century with Meyer Friedman, a cardiological researcher, while he was observing the relationship between heart disease and personality. Today it is taken for granted, but at the time, the idea that cardiac events correlated more closely with competitive and high-stress personalities was new. The “Type A” personality became a cultural label with the 1974 publication of the book: Type A Behavior And Your Heart.
So what is a “Type A” personality? According to the article 16 Signs You’re A Little (Or A Lot) Type A, the behaviors and attitudes related to Type A include:
- Being deeply irked by anything that slows their progress or needlessly keeps them from getting things done.
- A tendency towards perfectionism and workaholism with a strong goal orientation
- More prone to nervous behaviors like nail biting, teeth grinding and fidgeting.
- Intense frustration at anything that wastes your time
- Overly high levels of care and conscientiousness.
- A focus on the future and a fear of the worst possible outcomes
- Talking over others to advance the conversation
- Some form of insomnia
- A personality that is always in a rush
- More of a focus on career and goals than relationships
- Difficulty being able to relax.
- Low tolerance for incompetence or lethargy in others
- Adherence to To-do lists and plans of action
- Sense of urgency at work.
- A sensitivity to stress.
- A greater success rate at achieving goals
My first thought in reviewing the list is that it should be named “The personality traits of the guy behind writing this article.” My second thought is that it’s spot on, at least in theory, but it’s missing an element. That element is intensity. There is a difference between a V8 mustang that can reach 155 miles per hour and Bugatti Chiron Super Sport that can reach over 300 miles per hour. Both are sports cars. The average person thinks both are desirable and fast, but one is an order of magnitude beyond the other. There are tons of type A personalities in the workplace, but the Bugatti workers tend to win the senior management race, and then they tend to demand everyone else be a Bugatti even if they are only Mustangs.
Competitive attitudes get more interesting when you consider the next three types which, as I’ve said, are creatively labeled, type B, C, and D. I wonder if my sarcastic tone in the last sentence was because of my “Low tolerance for incompetence in creative naming“. But back to the topic at hand, of these three, type B and C are of interest insomuch as B and C are reflections of A. Type B is the complete opposite of A. They are relaxed where Type A is stressed. They are consistent and steady where Type A is action oriented based upon what issues are at the forefront of their world. Type B is a calming influence in their environment where the stress level goes up for everyone when type A enters the room. The biggest difference between A and B is that B isn’t all that competitive. It’s for this reason we don’t usually see Type B personalities in leadership positions in large organizations. Their steadiness may keep them employed in the organization, but if they don’t care, they don’t get promoted unless they are the only one left who can do the job.
When I was in college, a buddy of mine liked to use the phrase when describing something as “It’s sort of the same, just different”. We always laughed and made fun of him for that inscrutable explanation to our questions. I’d say that it’s an apt way to describe Type C when compared to type A. Where Type A drives towards action, Type C drives toward perfectionism and accuracy. They take excellence to the extreme. Type A wants to get it done, Type C wants’ to get it right. Because of this Type A wants to break the rules, Type C lives for the rules. They wrap themselves in the rules. It’s my experience that the way that Type C people ascend the ranks is through their competitive perfectionism. It’s great in jobs that require intense detail orientation like government, safety, and some types of engineering. If Type A is a world class football player, Type C is a world class golf player. If your Type A and your dealing with a Type C, it’s not going to be good. Routine, focus, stability, security, and logic are all tenants of Type C People. It’s almost like Type C is stealth competitive.
Type D is, in my experience, rarely in a leadership position unless they ascend in the same way Type B has. The D is supposed to stand for distressed. They tend to have a negative opinion of life, but conversely love to help and give advice. They also tend to hide their negativity. They are the counselors who need counseling.
One thing to keep in mind, again based upon my experience, on these personality types is that they can be flexible. Different people exhibit different personality types in different areas of their life. The core is still there but it seems to change based upon the environmental factors. The human psyche is highly complex and I am far far from an expert, I’m just an observer of the human condition. This leads into a highly controversial subject, ie. sex and competitive attitudes in the workplace. I’m a dad of one boy and two girls and married to a woman for nearly 20 years. And as I said, I’m also an observer of humanity around me. I have come to one obvious conclusion, and another one that I could get shot for, which after I researched it, very interestingly, turned out to be wrong.
The obvious conclusion is that men and women are different. The conclusion that could lead into a lynching if I said it out loud, but turned out to be incorrect, is that more Boys than Girls are competitive by their inate nature. It’s easy to see why I came to the initial conclusion when you watch boys and girls growing up. For example in my house my boy is forever jumping through trees, pitting himself against his buddies in crazy feats, and involved in other direct competitive play like Nerf Wars or wrestling. My girls have spent their time pretending to be princesses, singing, dancing, or being creative like dressing up into different outfits or doing crafts. After a bit of digging what I learned is that I’m looking for the wrong tell signs with girls. According to some research, girls’ competitive behavior is subtle. It includes things such as small shifts in tone and expression, or spreading rumours. Melissa Emery Thompson, a researcher, says that these differences also explain why human males tend to cooperate more effectively in groups while many females “work well in pairs and tend to maintain only a few close relationships.” I’m thinking that this could play into why only about 5% of corporations have female CEO’s. The private sector corporate world is more aligned to direct and overt competition. As I said, everyone is different. To this point, the expression of the competitive nature of boys and girls is a bell curve with some women intensely competitive in very direct ways. Don’t tell Serena Williams or a competitive female investment banker that females aren’t competitive for the goal oriented prize.
Male, female, Type A, Type C, subtle, or aggressive, the point is that there are competitive attitudes everywhere. Some are very easy to see and understand, some are more difficult to wrap your head around. I cited the difference between male and female simply because the more subtle type of competitive attitude was alien to me until I learned about it. What does it mean for the professional? For the individual contributor with limited aspirations for ascension in the organizational ranks, it means that they will most likely become pawns in the power machinations from those who are being competitive at levels above them. The one tool they have, and the point of this article is that knowledge of competitive personality types can be helpful. Understanding the players and their personalities can give you a heads up on the competitive moves they may make. One point of warning: If your a non-competitive individual, in a generally non-competitive job, but part of a highly competitive organization, there will be collateral damage that comes from the power machinations. Departments will be moved, initiatives will change with the new managers, and generally your life will be rockier. If you want to get out, it may be tough if your career inertia has you chained to a particularly competitive industry.
The other side of the competitive coin is the individual who’s trying to be competitive, who’s trying to work their way up the ranks. For them, understanding competitive personality types is the first step in intelligence gathering. The next step is determining how to deal with the competition. That’s the type of information that takes years to develop and even more years to master.
Competitive attitudes and personalities are always there, around us, and affecting us. It’s not just Type A and it’s not always easy to spot. Just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean it’s not important to learn the personality types and how they compete, or don’t compete, based upon the different scenarios we are in every day. As a type A, my gut reaction to learning personalities is to make a list of everyone, understand their personality type in different situations, and engage each carefully so I can make sure I know how to leverage them to meet my goals, and worry about what could happen if I got it wrong. Let me just say right now, don’t ever do that. It’s anti-social and will do more harm than good, unless of course your a Bugatti Chiron Super Sport level Type A. Then who knows what will happen? But for the rest of us, thinking about it is good enough. I’m always touting awareness of our surroundings, not just gossip, but actual intellectual awareness. It’s why I write these articles. When we know the variables then we know how to better navigate the intersections of work and life. Fortunately for us, that tactic works no matter what your personality is.