That Th!nk You Do Chapter 5 – Rules of Competition

For those who didn’t know, I’ve signed with a new publisher and my first book out with them, The Think You Do, should be available late Nov-Dec ’22.


As always, let me know what you think.

Rules of Competition

NextStage did a bunch of political research during the ’08 Presidential race, and some of which appeared on my BizMediaScience blog. One of the questions that we still get with regularity involves the public’s perception of Senator Clinton versus Governor Palin.

The question being asked was asked about politics and the answer has little to do with politics. It really has to do with how people perceive another person’s hard work, ambition, drive, steadfastness, …, in a word, competitiveness, and especially how these traits are gender-biased. Thousands of years ago when I was in college a fellow told me that I was steadfast. “And that is a quality of the Lord,” he added. I responded, “I’m steadfast, you’re stubborn, and he’s too stupid to know any better.”

My response beyond being glib is a statement of psychological distance.

Let me give you an example. Steadfast, as in “holding to one’s beliefs”, is great when people share your beliefs. But if you don’t share my beliefs and I’m somehow stopping you from achieving your goals? Then perhaps my steadfastness is, to you, stubbornness. What if you have no opinions about my beliefs per se but believe I have no idea what I’m doing? Then perhaps I’m too stupid to know any better.

The above is a demonstration of a given trait being considered as a plus or minus based on psychological distance — how far one person’s beliefs are from another’s.

Competitiveness is interesting because it comes in two forms. Goal-directed competitiveness — where you compete against yourself to achieve a goal — has no psychological distance component. Interpersonal competitiveness — when you want to beat someone else — has a strong psychological distance component attached. Psychological distance comes into play when there’s recognizable winners and losers.

Public perception of an individual’s competitiveness is what gets votes. Both men and women think highly of people who are goal-directed, not so highly of people who are interpersonally competitive (probably because we don’t know when that competitive nature will be directed against us). And both men and women will create extreme psychological distance between an interpersonally competitive female but not so much towards an interpersonally competitive male, which is where gender-bias comes in.

Politicians get votes by demonstrating a balance between goal-directed and interpersonal competitiveness. Both Senator Clinton and Governor Palin are competitive — they are politicians, after all. Senator Clinton’s staff had a difficult task (whether they realized it or not) that they executed well (whether they realized it or not); Senator Clinton had to compete against her Democratic rivals and convince the public that she was goal-directed. Specifically, that her goal wasn’t the Presidency, her goal was to benefit the voters.

Governor Palin’s staff never managed to get her image out of the interpersonal side of competition. People who were undecided knew she was against the Democrats, but once you got past that, what were her goals? There was no goal-direction to balance her interpersonal competitiveness.


The lesson to be learned from this is balance. You can be a goal-directed male or female and be respected, not despised. Goal-directed people tend to be assertive and confident without being aggressive and boorish. Interpersonally competitive people? They may be fun to watch and they can be exhausting after a while.

There are other benefits to being goal-directed and knowing when to mix the two competitive forms. It’s easier to make allies when you’re goal-directed because less (ahem) politics comes into play. You’re also tougher to defeat when you’re goal-directed because there is no personal challenger in the mix. Antoine de Saint-Exupery may have said it best; If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

When is it good to mix the two? Team against team competition — your business versus a competitor’s — is naturally interpersonal. Also, interpersonal competition during mentoring — competing with an individual when both of you know the goal is to make them better at what they do, not to demonstrate your superiority to them or (god forbid!) someone else. But note in this last example: they are goal-directed and you are helping them achieve their goal by competing with them interpersonally.

Terry has scrambled quickly up the corporate ladder, earning a reputation for being hardworking and ambitious. Outside the office, Terry fights tenaciously for every point on the tennis or basketball court.

Is Terry popular? You might think it depends on Terry’s sex: A competitive he-Terry would be considered attractively masculine, while an assertive she-Terry might annoy some folks.

But it turns out that the popularity of competitive people has little to do with their sex. What truly matters is who they are trying to beat.

Competitiveness is really two different things, explains Nadege Morey, M.A., and Gwendolyn Gerber, Ph.D., of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Goal competitiveness is the desire to do one’s best to reach a goal. Here you’re competing against yourself. Then there’s interpersonal competitiveness, the desire to beat others.

Morey and Gerber find that college students consider goal competitiveness an asset in both sexes. In fact, goal-competitive women are especially respected, perhaps, suggests Morey, because “it takes more for a woman to be competitive in our society.” s

The surprise involves interpersonal competitiveness. According to stereotypes, “real men” are aggressive, ready for a fight, while women are more concerned about others. But students give interpersonal competitiveness a resounding thumbs-down when displayed by either sex.

Read Chapter 6 – Guys Can’t Help Themselves.