At the heart of some of the most stunning displays of human achievement lies an intense rivalry. From the software wars between tech heavyweights Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to the grueling matches between tennis greats Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to the fraught, acrimonious relationship between Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rivalry has incited staggeringly high levels of achievement from individuals and organizations across industries.
To be clear: Rivalry and competition, while similar, are not synonymous. Teasing apart their subtle but important differences helps explain why rivalry makes for such a potent motivator, says Gavin Kilduff, a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business.
Competition, as Kilduff defines it, is any situation in which the goals or outcomes of the actors involved are opposed to one another, so a gain for one player inherently comes at a loss for the other. Rivalry is more personal; it's built on relationships.
Kilduff has been studying the topic for years, and his research indicates that rivalries typically develop when competitors are similar (in age, demographic etc.), they compete against one another frequently and their skillsets are evenly matched. Intuitively, it makes sense that striving to beat someone who competes at or just above our level and with whom we have a long track record will increase both effort and performance; winning is suddenly very personal. Indeed, by analyzing a roster of competitive runners, Kilduff found that competitors running in a race with a rival whittled down their time by an average of five seconds per kilometers.
Undoubtedly, rivalry is a tool that can be used to boost both effort and performance. But it's very much a double-edged sword, Kilduff finds; left unchecked and allowed to develop in unfavorable conditions, it can fester into a warped motivator; suddenly, success is measured solely by how we stack up against a single competitor. Kilduff's research has found that participants who are asked to think about a personal rival before performing a task are far more likely to inflate their actual performance than participants who are simply asked to think about a competitor.
When going head-to-head with a rival, motivation can easily become untethered from what's at stake, because "beating that opponent carries a psychological value in and of itself independent of the size of the prize," Kilduff says. And that can be dangerous: Laser-focusing in on one rival at the expense of the bigger picture leaves us vulnerable to "other competitive threats that may be newly emerging."
So how can individuals and organizations harness rivalry to increase motivation, effort and performance without falling victim to its darker side?
1. Consider the task at hand.
Rivalry is a great motivator to try harder, so in general, it works best in situations where the link between effort and performance is strong. For example, rivalries -- particularly between friends -- can be a great boost in areas like personal health and fitness, or other activities that require effort and dedication, such as studying for an exam.
"We’re discovering more and more that having someone you are a little competitive with, who you compare your progress to, can be a very motivating force," says Kilduff, who admits he has a couple friends with whom he maintains a "moderate level" of rivalry.
However, for tasks where the relationship between effort and performance is less direct -- for jobs that require creativity or precision, say -- Kilduff warns that intense rivalries can frequently backfire and actually discourage progress, as the "extra arousal and excitement" of intense competition easily becomes a distraction.
2. Don’t allow rivalries to develop unchecked -- especially when lying and cheating is possible.
In one of Kilduff's studies, he had subjects face-off against a simulated opponent to complete a typing contest. The study was designed so that each participant won two out of the four contests, but half the group faced off against the same opponent each time and won or lost by a narrow margin; these slight victories and losses to the same opponent encouraged feelings of rivalry among participants, who subsequently reported higher scores on the Machiavellianism scale. No money was at stake here, so imagine the potential shift in a person's personality when real cash and prestige is on the line.
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Outside of the lab, Kilduff studied rivalry's side effects on the soccer field. By analyzing games between professional Italian soccer teams, he found that matches played between intra-city rivals resulted in a substantially higher number of red and yellow cards, a fairly good indicator of unethical behavior in sports because cards are typically awarded for dangerous tackles or attempts to deceive a referee by taking a dive.
It appears, then, that unregulated rivalry doesn't just incite cheating and lying; it incites risky actions as well. Encouraging intense rivalries between employees who have "leeway to engage in risky or unethical behavior, take dangerous gambles or fudge the numbers," is a recipe for unethical behavior, Kilduff warns (financial industry, take note).
3. Encourage organizational rivalries.
While rivalries between individual employees can be an effective motivator, they can also easily backfire, increasing tension and the temptation to cheat or lie on the job.
Rather than advising employers to pit co-workers against one another, Kilduff recommends encouraging rivalries at the organizational level. For most businesses, identifying a competitor and then focusing on outperforming them can increase motivation and identification within the organization.
In Kilduff’s most recent research, which has yet to be published, he finds that U.S. universities engaged in a long-standing rivalry (Harvard vs. Yale, USC vs. UCLA) benefit from increased merchandise sales, as well as a a higher proportion of alumni who donate to the school, even after controlling for factors like academic and athletic rank.
“It seems like the rivalry is triggering a higher level of identification and commitment among the organizational members,” Kilduff says. “That could certainly apply to businesses as well as universities.”