Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

I spent my childhood on a beautiful island with a tiny population called King Island. There being no established pre-school at this time* my Mum and some other ladies started their own, with Mum stepping up to fill the role of pre-school teacher. She tells stories of walking around the playground and looming up behind groups of little rosy cheeked kiddies embarked upon enthusiastic play. Mum says that she never realised until then just how feral and atavistic kids are; the little ones she saw were pretending to lock Granny in the oven or preparing to be eaten by wolves. If most of us think back to the playground we can probably remember a weird dark undercurrent that bubbled alongside our games and imaginings: I was obsessed with witches, and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a lady with long fingernails who slapped men across the face when I grew up; my sister cut the whiskers off our pet cat in the spirit of scientific enquiry. Other kids acted out even uglier instincts by bullying. Most of us, thankfully, grow past these behaviours.

This morning I read an article entitled ‘Don’t Try This at Work: How Entrepreneurs Sabotage the Competition’ by Dana Severson. In it Severson lists some examples of some things that people have done to stymie, backfoot or downright sink their competitors:

“A few weeks ago, Uber was once again accused of trying to sabotage their competition. According to Uber’s lead competitor, riding sharing service Lyft, 177 Uber employees booked and cancelled over 5,000 rides.”

Severson asks “Are these dirty tactics or just competitive spirits at play?” I would call them dirty tactics, while Severson doesn’t seem to directly condemn or endorse them and is, I feel, trying to create a light hearted vibe with the piece. He encourages his readers thusly: “If you’re the type of entrepreneur that appreciates a bit of competitive rivalry, you may enjoy their confessions below” and seems to strike an approving note when he writes “In the sport of business, competition is fierce, there are winners and there are losers.”

A diverse range of people get into business driven by a diverse range of reasons and personal motivations, ranging from necessity to opportunity and from desperation to inspiration to a spirit of adventure. For some, the business world will, indeed, offer an expression for a naturally competitive personality. If this competitiveness is also combined with the right set of skills and qualities then there is no reason why these sorts of people won’t succeed (and good luck to them if they do). Severson quotes businessman Mark Cuban as saying “business is the ultimate sport” and writes: “For people like him, being an entrepreneur is akin to quarterbacking a team to victory.”

While the businessman = quarterbacker analogy doesn’t apply to all of the business people I know, it is still a good analogy for some, granted. But the examples of behaviour listed in this article don’t remind me of the best kind of athletes. There is something heroic about great sports achievements (as long as they’re not tainted by bad sportsmanship or cheating) while the business people’s actions listed in this article are just sort of… mean.

You have probably guessed by now that I don’t approve of the entrepreneurs’ shenanigans listed in this article. In the greater cosmic scheme of things this won’t mean much. People who think as I do don’t need to read this article or blog to be convinced; people who think as the cunning entrepreneurs in this article do probably think people like me are idiots who deserve to have our schemes wrecked someday. I would like to think we lived in a world where people who were pure of heart and mind always prevailed and bastards got their comeuppance but we don’t live in that world: we have all seen appalling people live happy happy lives and good people suffer, and vice versa. And how we measure our rewards varies as well: if I did something mean to a competitor I would never sleep again and any profit that ensued would really turn to ashes in my mouth. But there are people out there who get a kick out of being mean, it does make them feel smug and clever. So the question of whether these actions is right or wrong, or whether you will ultimately be rewarded by them is a fruitless one to prosecute**.

But there is one question that I think really is worth considering. If you devote time, intellect, imagination, energy and even material resources to thinking up and then doing something mean to nobble someone else’s business, why not just devote these things to doing your business really really well?

From an 1882 book 'Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website
From an 1882 book ‘Golden Rays’; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

Imagine a little kid who has just discovered that a magnifying glass can be employed to burn ants on an anthill, and who is lying on his stomach engrossed in doing just that. You would be looking at a child who has applied a certain amount of logic and intellect and concentration, yes, so maybe not a stupid kid, but one who has turned his back on a whole wide world in which he might play at various things to do this one nasty act.

Just as this child becomes myopically focussed on this mundane act of cruelty, so devoting one’s self to acts of sabotage surely becomes another form of myopia. If you are obsessed with acts of treachery, what are you not being aware of in your business? If silly tricks are filling your head, have you been robbed of a broader or more creative vision for your enterprise? I guess what I am trying to say is that the things that have been offered up as example of competitiveness in this article, can also be seen as examples of a business owner being distracted from opportunities to make his / her business better. Why swap the opportunity to direct your talents towards innovation and making yourself unique for the furtive end game of bringing other people down? As Gary Hamel said “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”*** You can never know about or control the business activities of all of your competition, but you can control your own decisions as to where you focus your abilities and resources.

*a million years ago now…

**Even though I know I AM right!

***Going to have to write a blog one day about how macho the language of business is – all these metaphors from the world of sport or combat.

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