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Competition at Work

Competition is the act of trying to get your needs met over the needs of someone else.

It could be competing in sports (your need to win over their need), in a job hunt (you against the thousand other applicants). Or it could be in a marketplace (trying to fight it out of for the same pile of money).

The nature of competition is adversarial, but it tends to help the consumer when it is done legitimately and legally. Companies competing with each other help drive prices down, create better service, and improve product offerings. Illegal competition hurts consumers (i.e. monopolies, etc.). Fortunately, criminal forms of competition is limited because people tend to dislike jail.

Continuous improvement plays a big role in competition. Obviously, the faster your company is at improving its processes, the better it will do. And because competition is a way of life in the modern world, the better you are at making improvements, the more successful—and satisfied—you will be in your company.

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We all understand that marketplaces are getting more competitive. We know that there are now gluts of products in every category, and these categories are competing with other categories for every available dollar. Movies compete not only with other movies for your entertainment, but with video games, DVDs, online videos, and much more.

Competition is also becoming global. Thirty or forty years ago, U.S. consumers you had to buy a car from the big three. Nowadays, they have choices from companies the world over. As more countries become industrialized, there will be even more competition in the future. Global competition is already commonplace for simple, labor intensive products. The trend, though, is for more sophisticate products to be manufactured overseas. Simple products have acted as the gateways for developing nations to start competing globally in more categories.

China is a great example of this. Initially, China was a target of outsourcing for simple products—textiles, shoes, etc. Today, nearly every major product category is present in China, and they are producing engineers at an astonishing rate.

This expanding competition is one of the biggest reasons that people of any nation need to be relentless in their pursuit of improvement. Forty or fifty years from now, China may be facing a crisis in which Chinese companies are outsourcing to developing African and South American countries.

The world is not static. One of the risks of winning is complacency. Once you are on top, it is easy to let your guard down.

In addition to market competition, there are a few other forms of competition that are not as frequently addressed, but are extremely relevant to continuous improvement. The first is the competition among employees on the job. The second is the competition for shareholders.

Competition on the job plays out in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is for promotion. In most cases, advancement in a company flows through a funnel. The higher you go in an organization, the fewer spots are available. A manager might have 3 or 4 supervisors working for her, and when she makes director, her promotion creates a vacuum.

Those supervisors have been competing among themselves all along for that spot. They have also been competing with the unknown, countless people who have their resume’s posted around the ether sphere. In addition, they are also competing with those people working in different departments of the company.

The nature of this competition is unusual, though. You work with the same people with whom you are competing, and must support them along the way. In general, the best strategy is to promote teamwork and help other people. It becomes a collaborative competition. When you help others make the team do better, you almost always will end up doing better yourself.

Leaders, in most cases, are very observant. They probably know far more than you think. If you have a reputation for being a team player and always go out of your way to help those around you, your reputation will be enhanced, and you will be more competitive. Plus, your relationship with your coworkers will stay positive, and you will be respected when you win a promotion.

One of the things that is a big differentiator at many companies is how good you are at improving your processes. As you rise in your organization, you will be expected to drive your organization to do more with less. In this regard, being good at continuous improvement makes you stand out.

The second aspect of on-the-job competition is in positioning yourself in the ‘pecking order’. While it will play a role in promotions, this hierarchy of sorts plays out much more frequently. Project assignments and internal opportunities are often assigned by merit. There are also intangibles, such as how likely an idea or concern is to be acted upon.  Where you stand in your boss’s and coworkers eyes go a long way toward your job satisfaction. If you are highly regarded by your peers and boss, work will be far more enjoyable.

Another form of competition is less visible to most employees:  the competition for shareholders. Most people recognize the theoretical importance of profit, but their actions tend to be more on doing a good job rather than adding to a shareholder’s wealth.

But shareholders are necessary for a company to thrive. If people don’t see the company as a good investment, they won’t pay for stock, which lowers the value of the company, and limits its ability to raise money for expansion or ride out a downturn.

Your company is competing with other companies for those shareholders. When it does well, you win. When it doesn’t, your boss makes you tighten your belt, and your job satisfaction suffers as a result.

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