Thought Leadership: Exploring Competitiveness (Members Only)
One of the fascinating aspects of organisational psychology is seeing vivid living examples of personality dimensions, enabling a richer understanding of how such constructs play out in the real world. An example is the dimension ‘Competitive’ (one of the 32 dimensions of the Occupational Personality Questionnaire or OPQ). The life of Lester Piggott, as described in his recent obituary in The Economist, colourfully illustrates some of the positives and negatives of having an extremely high level of competitiveness.
The central part of competitiveness is the will to win and this is of course amplified by the fact that the winners usually reap the bulk of the rewards, such as fame and fortune. Winning is not just about coming first; it is also about beating the other contenders. Piggott reportedly absorbed this philosophy from his father. ‘You went out to win. Win, win, win.’ He won his first real race at 12 years of age. He went on to win 4,493 races in Britain. Of course, he also needed talent and technique and to this end he combined exquisite balance and ruthless will.
To illustrate, let us look at his behaviour in the Grand Prix de Deauville in 1979. He dropped his whip near the finish line. His response was to steal another! He reached out with his right hand as he drew alongside at full gallop toward the left hand of Michel Lequeux and plucked his whip away and with this whipped his way to the finish line.
This brings us to the downside of being highly competitive. As Graeme Richardson entitled his 1994 book about politics, ‘Whatever it takes’, is an attitude that leads to rule-bending and breaking behaviour. In Piggott’s case, this led to him being suspended at 18 by the Jockey Club for reckless riding, but only for a short time.
When an exceptional mount appeared, he insisted on riding it at the next big race, even if it was being kept for another jockey. He would phone to plead his case to the owner and this ‘jocking off’ became known as his specialty. Money was reportedly also an obsession for him, but in 1985 he was found to have evaded tax for a decade and a half, earning him three years in jail. He staged a remarkable comeback in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park, New York at the age of 54. He said this was the most satisfying ride he had ever had.
Competitiveness is a sought-after characteristic in the business world, particularly in sales, promotional and entrepreneurial areas. It provides an edge or drive to other areas of personality such as persuasiveness. But on a ten-point scale, perhaps we should think whether a 7 or 8 could be seen as positive, but that a 9 or 10 might be more likely to produce some of the problematic behaviours illustrated above. It is probably a curvilinear rather than a linear relationship with performance.
So, competitiveness can be a huge factor in winning, but we need to be aware of the dark side of doing so at the cost of bending the rules, sometimes to the level of unethical, even illegal behaviour. An alternative driver is the dimension ‘Achieving’, which puts the emphasis on personal best performance, overcoming challenges and setting high standards, rather than on beating others. Constraints on the potential excesses of competitiveness can come from dimensions related to emotional control and rule-following. So, we need to look at the whole profile of an individual (not to mention the work environment) to better predict the risks and benefits of how some more extreme elements like very high competitiveness may play out.
The Economist, June 4, 2022