Competitive Behaviors versus Competitive Strategies

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 12, Issue No. 1
April, 2013

By Dan Coughlin



There has been a lot of talk lately about what the U.S. needs to do to be more competitive on the global stage. On March 13, 2013, Charlie Rose interviewed Michael Porter about his eight steps to fix the U.S. economy:

These types of conversations are about strategy. A strategy is a guideline for making decisions that affect the type of organization you will be and the type of activities you will do in the future. Strategies are important for businesses and for countries. Without a strategy there will likely be no connection between the types of activities people in the organization are doing or the people they are working to serve. Without a strategy, either written or unwritten, guiding your organization, you will likely end up with a very weak brand, virtually no effective innovations, and very poor results.

However, even with the most brilliant strategy, you cannot compete effectively as an organization if the people in the organization are not acting in a competitive way. In this article, I’m going to focus on how individual competitive behaviors can make an organization more successful. You can extrapolate these behaviors for the members of your organization, and for the citizens of the U.S. and for any other country in the world. We don’t just need the U.S. to be more competitive. We need every country to be more competitive. That’s how we raise the bar on a global basis. It starts with individuals behaving in competitive ways.

What Competitive Behaviors Are Not

There are certain behaviors that some people think demonstrate competitiveness, but I argue that they don’t. I call these behaviors The Three Killer B’s: bravado, boorish, and brutal. Bravado is synonymous with brag, bluster, and bombast, and it means a swaggering display of courage. Boorish is synonymous with uncouth, unmannered, and insensitive, and it means a coarse and blatant lack of sensitivity to the feelings or values of others. Brutal is synonymous with ferocious, gross, and rude, and means to act in a savage, cruel, and inhuman way. (Source: Bragging about your past experiences, eating like an animal or dressing like a slob or swearing like a drunken fool just because no one will tell you to stop, and putting people down and having to win every single conversation in the hallway does not make a person competitive. Repulsive perhaps, but not competitive.

Talking with bravado, acting boorish, or being brutal might intimidate other people in the short term, but they do not help the intimidator or his or her organization compete more successfully. There is a dramatic difference between intimidating people and competing successfully.

Look for Analogous Competitive Situations

I suggest you think of a competitive situation you’ve been in outside of the business world. It could be sports, music, acting, academics or some other activity where you had to compete against other people or your own past performance in order to win. You can then use insights from that activity to see more clearly how to be competitive in the business world. For me, sports provide that analogy. And now here are six competitive business behaviors.

Competitive Business Behavior #1: Define Winning

Winning in sports is very easy to understand. You get a schedule of games to play in, and then in each game you either win or lose. At the end of the season, you either win the championship or not. In practice many drills are set up to immediately determine whether or not you won in a particular activity.

Winning in business is not always as short term or easy to figure out. However, in order to compete, you have to define what winning means in your role as a business leader and you have to be able to measure it.

Some parts of business are easy to define in terms of winning: growing revenue, reducing cost, increasing profit, beating last year’s sales numbers, adding five new customers, and so on.

Other times winning is not as obvious, but these aspects can be more important in terms of being successful over the long term. This might include improving the reliability of small parts in a product that no one ever sees, reducing the complexity of a customer’s instruction guide for one of your products, or improving the impact of a presentation on an audience member’s future behaviors, which can only be loosely measured by anecdotal information down the road and somewhat by his or her actual results.

I like to think about Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios. It takes them four years to make a film, and then over the course of a few weekends their financial success is largely determined. Certainly they include box office receipts and DVD sales and video downloads as one way of defining whether or not they won, but I also believe they define winning as improving the quality of the images and the development of their characters and the impact of the message within the film.

Within your role in your organization, what would have to happen for you to be able to say you’re winning? I’m not talking about your title or income or authority level. Those are by-products of winning. Increasing your salary so you can do meaningful things for other people might very well be fueling your energy at work, but that’s not the type of winning I’m referring to. I’m talking about what would have to happen in terms of an outcome for your organization in order for you to say that you and your team have won? If you don’t know how to define a victory, then how can you compete?

In order to win in business, you can’t just plow through a ton of activities and work a million hours and call yourself a winner. You actually have to impact some outcome, some measure of success. What is yours?

Competitive Business Behavior #2: Prepare to Win

If you’re a competitor, you don’t just show up and perform. You prepare as well as you can to deliver a winning performance. I think if people spent less time talking about being competitive and more time preparing to win in their organizations, they would actually become much more competitive. Talking about winning is in-the-public-eye, exciting and sexy. Preparing to win is behind-the-scenes, mundane, and ordinary. Take that improved instruction manual as an example. No one in the media is going to write a front-page story about how much easier it was for customers to understand the instruction manual or how it helped the customer to assemble the product in 40% less time, but that’s an example of winning within an organization that helps the organization to be much more competitive in the long run. To improve the instruction manual perhaps the person studied the competition’s materials and studied instruction manuals from other industries. Maybe this person prepared himself or herself by taking courses on effective writing. All of this behind-the-scenes preparation pays off in fewer customer complaints and more loyal customers.

Competitive Business Behavior #3: Bring an Intense, Sustained Desire to Win

Do you show up just for the paycheck, or do you have an intense, burning desire to win within the framework of how you have defined winning?

Let’s switch back to my sports analogy. The athletes regardless of their sport who win consistently over the long term have a burning desire to constantly prepare and improve within their sport.

It doesn’t matter what role you have or what industry you work in. If you want to be a competitive person at work, you have to have a burning desire to do what you do as well as you can do it. I’ve been writing monthly articles on business leadership at this desk since September 1999, and right now I’m trying my very best to craft a message that will hopefully have a tremendous impact on your competitiveness as a business leader. This article might not help you, but I have an intense desire to try to help you be a great business leader. What is your intense desire at work? What are you willing to work for?

Competitive Business Behavior #4: Persevere through Challenges

Life is difficult. These are the three famous opening words from Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. They are powerful because they are true. On the road to winning you are going to face challenges on a daily basis. We all know that. We also all know that we have to persevere in order to win. The tricky part is to actually keep going. This is where a sense of purpose comes in. You need a purpose, a reason for working, a reason to be competitive, a reason to keep on keeping on. What is yours? Why do you want to win at work? Do you want a greater salary so you can provide for your family and pay college tuitions and help your aging parents? Those are noble reasons to keep on keeping on.

There are other reasons why people persevere. They want to leave a legacy of having mattered. They want, as the late Steve Jobs used to say, to put a “dint in the universe.” They want to fulfill something deep inside of themselves. These are also noble reasons to keep on keeping on.

For an athlete to compete, he or she has to persevere within a practice, a game, a season, and a career. For a business leader to compete, he or she has to persevere within a meeting, a project, an organization, and with suppliers and customers. You have to keep going in order to have an opportunity to win.

Competitive Business Behavior #5: Analyze Performances and Improve in the Details

Being competitive doesn’t mean that you have to be always performing. Sometimes, or maybe more like a LOT of times, you need to stop doing and step back and reflect on what you’ve done. Look at your performance and ask yourself what you’re doing that is helping your chances of winning, what you are doing that is hurting your chances of winning, and what you could be doing that might increase your chances of winning. Reflection and discernment are perhaps the two most underrated aspects of competitive business behaviors, but they are two of the most important. Rather than wasting time on bravado and boorish, brutal behaviors, I encourage you to step away from your activities and really think about what would make them even more effective.

One caveat: don’t cheat. Cheating might help you “win” in the short term, but it can also ruin your career and destroy your organization. Winning only counts if you are competing in an honest way.

Competitive Business Behavior #6: Be Comfortable with Other People Getting Uncomfortable

On the road to trying to win you will likely encounter people who simply don’t want to put in the physical or mental effort necessary to win on a consistent basis. It’s okay to be honest and professional with them and to point out in a very clear way why they need to make some adjustments. This is where your leadership skills come into play. To me, business leadership means influencing how other people think so they make decisions that improve results for the organization in a sustainable way. That’s a long way of saying that business leadership is about competing to win. As Tom Landry, the long-time coach of the Dallas Cowboys, used to say, “Coaching is about getting people to do what they don’t want to do so they can achieve what they want to achieve.”

Even if you have hired competitive people, you are likely going to make them uncomfortable in some way at some point in time. That’s okay. It may very well be that discomfort, okay let’s call it pain, that will help them to learn how to be more competitive in the future.

If you’ve hired people who are not competitive and who aren’t willing to learn how to compete, then you are facing a very difficult decision. Do you move forward with folks who are friendly and who do a good job but who are unlikely to do what it takes to win as an organization, or do you decide to move on without them? Competitiveness and competitive behaviors are essential elements in a winning organization. I encourage you to teach and develop competitive behaviors in your organization, but also realize that some people are not going to want to compete in order to continually improve and to press on for victory. In those cases, you have to decide what you are going to do. It’s not about bravado, boorishness, or brutality. You can still maintain professionalism and integrity in whatever you decide to do.


Intelligent strategies that affect the type of business you will be in and the type of activities your organization will do in the future are important to consider carefully and to create.

However, an organization will not be competitive in the marketplace, and a country won’t be competitive in the world, just because it has a good competitive strategy. What organizations and countries need are employees and citizens who consistently demonstrate competitive behaviors. There is nothing in the world that is wrong with being competitive, as long as we’re clear about what that means. Competitive behaviors include defining what winning means, preparing to win, maintaining a burning desire to win, persevering through obstacles, analyzing performances, and influencing other people even if it means causing them to get very uncomfortable.

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