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The Upsides and Dark Sides of Rivalry: A Q&A with Gavin Kilduff

Left unchecked, competitive situations may be as likely to bring out our worst as our best.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were among the greatest rivals in sporting history and their play on the basketball court riveted fans and teammates alike. Although they eventually became good friends off the court, their athletic rivalry spurred each man to continually improve his already stellar game.

So how do the benefits of rivalry map onto corporate life? That’s among the questions we asked Gavin Kilduff, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Kilduff has studied how rivalry influences behavior, assessing its motivating effects on university basketball teams, soccer teams, airlines, long-distance runners, and ordinary individuals. Most rivalries, he found, develop under three conditions, he found: when individuals (or teams) are very similar; when they are evenly matched; and when, like Bird and Johnson, they compete against each other repeatedly over time.


FK: Are the effects of rivalry positive or negative?

GK: I describe rivalry as a double-edged sword. One benefit that I’m investigating may be that when organizations have fierce rivals, the individuals in those organizations may be more committed and more loyal to each other. The presence of a constant rival in their minds may foster greater in-group cohesion. Other benefits include increased motivation and performance. For example, when runners competed against a rival (as opposed to against their other competitors), they ran an average of 5 seconds per kilometer faster in a race. And when we asked individuals to think about personal rivals for just a few minutes, they exhibited increased motivation and persistence on a subsequent task.

The downsides are potentially many, however. Unethical behavior—in the form of cheating or unsportsmanlike conduct, for instance—increases when people are competing against their rivals. People seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to get an advantage in those situations.

FK: Why do sports offer such a good analogy for other organizational research?

GK: Sports organizations fundamentally grapple with issues such as leadership, team dynamics, motivation, and decision making, all of which are broadly relevant to organizations. And there’s a lot of detailed, objective data on sports organizations and competition.

But it’s never good to have all the research for a particular topic come from a single domain, so, as part of my exploration, I asked non-athletes to write about a personal rival—how they feel about that person and what they competed on. It’s a technique called priming. I then analyzed how that exercise influenced their behavior.

In addition to the persistence benefits mentioned earlier, I have also found that just having people write about a rival for five minutes makes them agree more with all kinds of Machiavellian statements. They were also more likely to inflate their performance on a task by saying that they fared better than they actually did. That’s evidence of unethical behavior.

FK: Can you give an example of those Machiavellian statements?

GK: Sure. “Never tell someone the real reason you did something unless it’s useful to you,” Or another example would be, “The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear.” Statements in that general vein. This one is reverse coded: “Only take action when you are sure it is morally right.” That’s something that people would agree with less after being so-called “primed” with rivalry.

FK: Slightly slippery but not outright immoral.

GK: Right. As a researcher, most of my interest in people’s decisions and behavior is in the grey areas. With the exception of a few psychopaths, people don’t murder or do certain other things, but when it comes to these grey areas, a large percentage of us, psychological research suggests, can be pushed one way or another depending on situational factors.

FK: Which are the industries where it might be an effective strategy to foster rivalry?

GK: Rivalry seems to benefit performance in routine tasks, where effort is really important—more important than skill or precision—and where motivation needs a boost. If people’s baseline motivations are fairly low and cooperation among individuals isn’t really important, taking steps to foster rivalry between employees may work. Sales and telemarketing are good examples. Those kinds of companies definitely employ strategies to foster rivalry and competition between their employees.

But thinking about the possible dark side, certain tasks in certain work environments afford greater flexibility for people to engage in questionable behaviors. If you’re an investment banker with a long leash to do what you want, you may have a lot of discretion to take risks or to engage in somewhat shady tactics that could be inadvertently promoted by rivalry. So that might be a more dangerous environment for rivalry to exist in.

FK: It sounds as though we’re talking about something that needs to be carefully managed.

GK: Yes. And I should also mention another potential side effect of rivalry, which occurs when companies become preoccupied with historic rivals and obsessively focus on a particular individual or organization. That could be effective if they’re your primary competitor, but as things evolve—let’s say as the industry itself changes—competition with that rival may become less relevant to your success, and a preoccupation or focus on it might start to become dysfunctional.

A great example is U.S. automakers in the 1980s: They were very much focused on beating one another, the Big Three. Japanese automotive makers were flying under the radar, and weren’t really considered serious threats—or rivals—by the Big Three until they had already taken a huge part of the market share.

This is something for managers to keep in mind. Are you focusing too much strategic attention on a company that you’ve always competed with? It may be great to have a rival to psyche yourself up or get the workforce galvanized, but it comes at a risk of tunnel vision.

Frieda Klotz

Frieda Klotz is a freelance journalist and critic, based in New York City.

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