The variable nature of comparisons

I have done many personality profiles over the years. Sometimes they seem to contradict and sometimes there are consistencies. One thing that is consistent though is that I see myself as more co-operative than competitive.

However, I was doing a course recently and a point of discussion was when we are all more competitive or collaborative. There were many great points around the impact of things like scarcity, social habits of humans and changing environments, all leading to shifts in behaviour.

A conclusion I could come to is that sometimes competition can lead to better results and sometimes co-operation will come up on top. I guess that is not a surprise, but it is also something I have not been paying attention to at work. I wonder if I should take not of the shifting sands of our work and the shift in behaviour.

Even more interesting though, was the impact of comparisons. Apparently comparing yourself to others can lead to a greater drive to compete, not just against them but against yourself.

If you see someone similar to you (same team, same start date at work, same school background) and they do well then you can feel a drive to push yourself to be more successful. On the downside you can also feel a drive to feel bad or to not want to cooperate to make them more successful unless you keep pace. I wonder now what tips the balance and I think it might be something to do with shared goals and interdependence for success rather than old school rivalry.

So we are likely to work together when we see a joint victory. But then there is another point around “justice.” If we see someone who started at the company a year after us get a promotion or we see someone junior get a pay-rise to earn nearly as much as us, this can create resentment even though they did nothing wrong and we are no worse off than yesterday. This means that comparing ourselves to others can cause use to be miserable rather than happy.

On the other hand, we can also become dissatisfied and then stop being complacent, change jobs, drive ourselves to overcome barriers and become more successful. So maybe being annoyed at something will cause us to change our behaviours in a positive way.

It all gets a bit confusing. I always tell people to run their own race and ignore the race others are running, but maybe that is my innate love of cooperating and relative blind spot for the benefits of competition. Maybe there are times we should compare ourselves to others, if it leads to motivation. A sense of rivalry drives some sports people to perform better when competing with rivals (even friends) and maybe the same happens in some sales teams or some classes where people push themselves to learn. But does it ever happen in a product or development team? I think people expect you to carry your weight, but I am not sure if developers, designers, testers and product people are as motivated by competition to do better work.

I wonder to what extent it is my own world view that suggests product teams are more co-operative that competitive and to what extent it is the nature of the work and the team that creates that view.

But it is not just a comparison to others that changes behaviour. We can also compare ourselves to ourselves.

We are who we are but maybe not who we expected to be – Did we perform the way we hoped to? Did I behave the way I expect myself to in that confrontation?

We are also different to who we were a year ago – does the team get more work done that it used to? Do we work more cohesively now, since we made some changes?

I think there are times when we can gain some real focus from comparisons to our expectations or our previous performance. However, once again, we can also experience a down side. Comparisons can lead us to be complacent (happy but achieving less) if we happen to have done better than expected or miserable and maybe even checking out if the opportunity was not what we expected.

I do not normally make many comparisons during my work week, preferring to be in the moment or focused on the next step. I also like to remain curious and open to possibility rather than trying compare where I am to where I thought I should be. But for the next week I will pay attention to when comparisons might be being made and when/if they are helpful or distracting.

To what extent does making comparisons (you to others, the team to a benchmark, you to your expectations of the best version of you) help you do better and be happier? To what extent do these comparisons distract you or create unnecessary stress.

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