Addressing Toxic Culture: When Your Competitive Edge Cuts Like A knife

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending a TedX event in Victoria BC.  One of the speakers had me sitting forward in my seat.  She was singing my song!  Her name is Nicole Sorochan and she is the owner and Creative Director of One Net Studios– a digital marketing firm and media powerhouse.  Nicole identified an issue that has really impacted me in my professional life with devastating effects in all areas of my life- the negative side to being competitive.

At first glance you might think that competition is motivating.  Sure- a certain degree of challenging one another can really boost performance and make goals more palatable.  We can push each other to reach higher, do more and think beyond our limitations.  In sports, competition is how players measure their success.  Gaining rank or recognition by using competition works.  It’s the way that system is built.  In the corporate setting competition can have negative consequences for both businesses and people.

Competition is like a fire- when tended properly it can warm everyone but if it gets out of control it leaves nothing but ashes and devastation.

Nicole talked mostly about the issue of competition and women.  This really brought it home for me.  The helping professions (the one I spent 20 years in) are dominated primarily by women.  Teams of women working together.  If you ask anyone who works in health or human sciences invariably there is a comment about having that many women in the room.  There is a layer here that Nicole brings forward that requires our attention.  How much does competition “bleed us” or “feed us”?

I can recall in the not too distant past being introduced to a woman who provided a service very much like mine.  She spent that introduction name dropping and posturing.  It was very disappointing for me because I had hoped to connect with her- not compete.  Instead she shut down any opportunity for us to explore how we might support one another by clearly staking her claim to expertise and prestige.  Any attempt I made to add value was dismissed.  If there is one thing I have learned over the course of my career working primarily with other women:

It is your character not your credentials that will draw people to you.

Leadership can and should embrace a healthy amount of competition.  The difference between healthy and harmful is whether or not competition is used as a weapon.  When winning- in any industry or business- becomes more important than our core values and causes us to gain ground at the expense of others- it is toxic.  Incentives and rewards are only marginally helpful when they are divorced from the frame of “team”.  In workplaces dominated by women there is an ironic lack of femininity and feminine “features” of leadership.

Competition has a way of leeching away empathy, healing, listening, self-awareness and other core concepts of leadership that can be seen as a weakness instead of a strength.

Forbes author Michael Blanding talks about the impact of competition on creativity within the marketing industry.  The “Goldilocks” effect is the need to balance competition so that it is neither too little nor too much for people.  If we apply this to women we might see that the intensity around competition in motherhood, the workplace and for love (yes I said it) creates so much intensity that we are willing to throw not just one another but ourselves under the bus in order to win.

Perhaps on piece of the puzzle in the room when parents (moms) sit down to talk about services with professionals is that- this is a room full of women.  Is it possible that the persona of “warrior mother” is a liability because of the intensity of competition to WIN in a meeting?  I have to wonder if this dynamic is the under-current to knowing what is in play when families and professionals are not working together as a team- it’s a “woman thing” as much as it is anything else.  Are we judging each other as mothers?  Are we competing for love and attention?  Are we trying to stake a claim in the gender equality “fight” at the expense of one another?

Nicole Sorochan’s presentation raised a lot of important questions about competition and women for me.  It uncovered a layer that needs our attention and challenged me to pay closer attention to my fellow woman and her experience along side mine.

Reflection Questions:

  1. When you think about empathy, healing, listening and self-awareness what are the negative connotations that you hear and feel around these characteristics?
  2. Think back to interactions you have had where you felt that competition and domination became more important than working together?
  3. What actions can you take to ensure that you are well-rounded in your need/drive to “WIN”?  What can you do to control your intensity so that you are not succeeding at the expense of others?

I’d love to hear if your experiences and thoughts are similar to mine.  Keep this conversation going by leaving a comment below.

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