Competition is great, isn’t it? Most of us, especially men, have been brought up hearing mantras like ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘winner are grinners’ and ‘may the best man win’.

In the workplace and on the sporting field winners are rewarded, whether it is with money, a medal, a promotion, or even just praise. Winners are celebrated. In recent years, there has been some backlash against this ‘win at all costs’ attitude.

In many contexts, this resistance to competitiveness has resulted in prizes for first, second and third place being replaced with participation awards. Just turning up is enough to get you a trophy.

However, this doesn’t seem to have diminished our natural human drive to compete and, in fact, the shift towards non-competiveness has itself experienced a recent backlash.

So, let me tell you my own story about competition. Recently I’ve been studying the concept of Lifestyle Inventories with Human Synergistics. There are many theories and models and this is just one I have been working with recently.

In short, the philosophy holds that there are broadly three styles of behaviour:

  1. Constructive

    In which where our behaviours are humanistic, affiliative, achievement-oriented and self-actualising.

  2. Passive Defensive

    In which our behaviours are approval-seeking, conventional, dependent and avoidant.

  3. Aggressive Defensive

    In which our behaviours are perfectionistic, competitive, oppositional and power-seeking.

Each of us displays some of these attributes at different times; elements of each of these types of behaviour are a vital part of our repertoire in order for us to successfully navigate different contexts.

There are times when we need to be more conventional and to follow orders without question. There are times when it is more productive to be relentlessly focused on moving forward, even to the point of being unforgiving of mistakes.

Balance between the three styles of behaviour is essential. Problems arise when we are heavily biased in favour of just one style.

Competitiveness comes under the cluster of Aggressive Defensive Behaviour. At the extreme end of this scale, individuals don’t just desire to win, they feel a compulsion to win at all costs. These are the people who are willing to risk everything in order to be right.

They will put themselves, their teams and their families in precarious situations to avoid failure or the possibility of losing.

When I first read the profile of the Aggressive Defensive style, I recognised many of my own dominant traits and was quite pleased about it. After all, these are the attributes of many successful leaders.

Many of the successful people we admire are driven and unrelenting, single-mindedly focused on reaching the top, sometimes to the point of forgetting the people around them.

This is excusable, because they get results. These people set the bar high and don’t let anyone take advantage of them. They can always be relied upon to be 100% focused on getting the job done.

How many of you recognise yourself in this description? You haven’t become a successful CEO simply by participating or just turning up. You got where you are because you are a winner. You are powerful, you oppose anything that gets in your way, you are driven, and you don’t lose. Am I right?

So, if being competitive got us to where we are, is there such a thing as too much competition? And if so, how much is too much?

Many of us who exhibit Aggressive Defensive attributes may have built billion-dollar companies, won awards, achieved our career goals and be financially comfortable.

But what has it cost us? The bad news is, competitiveness and the relentless need to win, to do better, to be better is causing us stress and is ultimately killing us. This need to win and be better is also not making us happy.

Stress puts strain on our health, our families, our children, our marriages and even our careers.
Stress, a leading contributor to heart disease, is an inevitable result of continuously pushing ourselves to outdo each other in work and in life generally. With one Australian dying of cardiovascular disease every 12 minutes, removing stress from our lives is more important than ever.

Our children are pressured to be better students, to look more attractive, to get more likes, retweets and followers, to go viral. Much of the time, they are competing against people they have never even met.
Plastic surgery is increasingly popular. For women alone, the rates of plastic surgery have grown 538% since 1997. This is directly related to the competitive desire to be skinnier, younger and ‘prettier’.

Divorce rates are also increasing because our spouses aren’t sexy, romantic, sensitive or fun enough. After all, social media suggests that everyone else has these amazing relationships, so we should too.

In the workplace, employee satisfaction is decreasing, in part because it has become less acceptable to be content with simply doing a good job – instead we are supposed to be continually focused on the next promotion, the next role or that next big bonus.

This competitiveness means that we can’t be happy when a colleague does well; instead, we turn a critical eye on ourselves to work out why we aren’t doing as well, or we look outwards to others we might blame for our lack of success.

Employee tenure is dropping as all of us strive to be better than one another. More of us are looking for the next best thing. The grass is always greener, there is always someone to surpass, another promotion to get, another business to start or to buy.

Bigger cars, buffer bodies, more money… This non-stop drive to be and to have the best in everything is simply unsustainable. Something has to give.

So how do we find the right balance? How much competition is enough and how much is too much? For me, I now know that what I saw as a strength – my competitive nature – becomes a weakness when it is taken to its extreme. It causes stress, physical exhaustion and an inability to be proud of what I have achieved. I am always chasing the next milestone, the next challenge.

However, I also know that when I manage to balance my competitive drive with attributes drawn from the other two behavioural categories, it becomes the key to my success. Finding the balance isn’t easy but I recognise that it’s essential in order to be successful over the long-term, at the same time as maintaining my physical, emotional and mental health.

Each of us needs to find our own answer to how this necessary balance might look for us. So, how much competition is too much for you?