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The Power of competition

Political candidates, Olympic athletes, and champion chess players who rose to the top by racing someone else have all credited “competitive fire” for their success. There are always challenges you must overcome to reach the top and achieve success. No wonder that having a taste for competition is considered one of the most crucial survival methods for individuals and organizations (Thiel, 2017). However, having a taste for competition must not be confounded with “spitefulness” or “malicious envy” (have a look at our blog post on envy).

According to the social comparison theory, individuals are motivated by a basic drive—the “unidirectional drive upward”— to increase their performance while also minimizing or preempting discrepancies between their and other people’s level of performance. This “action to reduce discrepancies interacts with the unidirectional push to do better and better” and creates “competitive behavior to protect one’s superiority” (Festinger, 1954).

In general, competition can be conceptualized in three distinct ways. First, as a characteristic of the person (trait competitiveness). Second, as a characteristic of the perceived situation (perceived environmental competitiveness). Last, as a characteristic of the actual situation (structural competition). All these conceptualizations are centered in the interpersonal or social competition, which is the competition between individuals. Yet competition may involve other aspects, such as intrapersonal competition (i.e., competition with oneself) and intergroup competition (i.e., competition between groups) (Brown, Cron, & Slocum, 1998).


“Caesar was born to do great things and to seek constantly for distinction. Even though he accomplished many successful things in his life. Instead of resting and enjoying what he has. Caesar’s successes encourage him to work harder for the future. Fulfilling his mind with confidence to work on harder projects and goals. All this can be referred as self-competition. Caesar always competes with himself as if he were someone else just to excel the future of the past” (Plutarch, 1967).

Caesar’s ‘self-competition’ might explain why most Nobel-laureates or Oscar-winners do not rest on the laurels. Having a taste for competition, or more precisely self-competition, refers to the motivation to improve one’s own performance over time, exceeding past performance (Behave4, 2019). When it comes to chasing your own unrealized potential, competition is at its best. You’ll never be able to beat your future self since, by definition, future you will always be one step ahead. However, you can thrive to achieve your ideal self’s goals.

In self-competition, each failure is a learning experience that can lead to embracing a growth mindset. When you start seeing failure during the process, it becomes easier to compete with your past self. “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.” (Dweck, 2006).

It also has been observed that some people may be intrinsically motivated to self-compete, while others may work for companies that (extrinsically) incentivize employees through compensation schemes based on outperforming their own past performance, so that their self-competition stems from extrinsic factors (Bönte, Procher & Urbig, 2017).

Social Competition

Interpersonal competition pervades people’s life as they compete for limited resources, services, and status. However, despite its significance to relational dynamics (e.g., rivalry), individual differences (e.g., traits and gender), social determinants (e.g., competitive climate), and organizational outcomes, research on competition and competitiveness in organizations is limited (Swab & Johnson, 2018).

Taste for social Competition refers to the preference for competing with others in situations where competition increases social efficiency (Behave4, 2019; Nierderle & Vesterlund, 2007). It is commonly based on agentic values (“getting ahead”), which strive for mastery and social dominance, as opposed to communal values (“getting along”), which are related to cooperation and the fulfillment of social bonds (Trapnell & Paulhus, 2012).

Festinger’s (1954) seminal work regarding effort gains in teams conceptualizes social comparison as a motivating but also sense-making process in social interactions. This fundamental mechanism can be seen in a variety of social motivation theories, including upward comparison, performance matching, and goal comparison.

Individual performance standards can be set by competition with other team members in teams, and this can affect subsequent effort expenditure. For example, if individual team members see that other team members are performing better in a valued task, they should increase their own performance goals to match or even surpass the performance of the other team members. In fact, laboratory studies have shown that social competition can result in significant effort gains in some areas in comparison to working alone (Murayama & Elliot, 2012).

So how can you distinguish Social and Self-competition at the workplace?

At Kodo People, we measure them with our behavioral assessment that is carried out in our Diagnosis platform (The Behave4 Diagnosis platform). People go through our online behavioral assessment where they make choices with real financial consequences. We classify employees according to their behavioral profiles to reveal the factors that explain companies’ Human Resources Indicators. You will get your people’s behavioral radiography by knowing the behavioral map of your teams. This will allow your organization to understand the factors that motivate your employees, that enhance their productivity, and most importantly help you distinguish Self-Competition from Social Competition to be able to choose and implement better strategies.

Special mention to Aida Ranande Ezati, Contributing Writer at Kodo People, who was the main contributor to this post.


Brown, S. P., Cron, W. L., & Slocum Jr, J. W. (1998). Effects of trait competitiveness and perceived intraorganizational competition on salesperson goal setting and performance. Journal of Marketing, 62(4), 88–98.

Bönte, W., Procher, V., & Urbig, D. (2017). Gender differences in selection into self-competition. Applied Economics Letters, 25(8), 539-543.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

Murayama, K., & Elliot, A. J. (2012). The Competition-Performance Relation: A Meta-Analytic Review and Test of the Opposing Processes Model of Competition and Performance. Psychological Bulletin. 138. 1035-70. 10.1037/a0028324.

Niederle, M., & Vesterlund, L. (2007). Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much?. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(3), 1067-1101.

Plutarch, and Bernadotte Perrin. Plutarch’s Lives. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Swab, R. G., Johnson, P. D. (2019). Steel sharpens steel: A review of multilevel competition and competitiveness in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40, 147– 165.

Thiel, M. (2017). The power of the social domain in sustainable development: non-market strategies for generating sustainable competitive advantage. Int. J. Innovat. Sustain. Dev. 11, 213–229. doi:10.1504/IJISD.2017.083304

Trapnell, P., & Paulhus, D. (2012). Agentic and Communal Values: Their Scope and Measurement. Journal of Personality Assessment, 94, 39 – 52.

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