As a youth, I showed horses. The judge would stand in the center of the arena as we rode around and at the end of the class, riders would line up in the center and winners would ride forward to receive their award as the audience clapped. For many years, I stayed in the center of the arena and left without a ribbon for my efforts. Sometimes the judges would provide feedback on what the winners had done well, and what the rest of us had done not-so-well.
Someone recently asked me about how the experience of not winning affected my self-esteem. They assumed that it was demotivating, but in reality it had the opposite effect. I did not spend long hours grooming my horse, cleaning the stalls, and practicing my horsemanship skills simply to beat others – I was showing because I wanted to be good at it and spend time around others who already were.
Competition was an opportunity to get feedback on how I was doing, and I took pride in my efforts and progress. It took some years, but I did collect a few trophies and ribbons. The award I am most proud of is a silver platter. It now has a few rust stains, but you can still read the writing: “Most Improved.”
Although there are a few things I got wrong in my teenage years, I believe my attitude towards competition and feedback was something that I got right. The word “competition” is most often understood in terms of a rival against whom we contend. However, the word’s Latin origin means to strive in common, strive after something in company with or together. I think shifting how we see competition can help us appreciate the value of feedback.
We are not working to outdo each other; instead, we are working together to collectively improve, note who is good at what they do, and learn from their example. Healthy competition is about “iron sharpening iron” – it’s about being part of a group whose members have high standards of performance and spur those around them to work harder and better.
The quickest way to get better at something is through feedback. In our book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work, we stress the importance of giving Honest Mutual Feedback. We want to know what the standard of excellence is, be clear about when we have fallen short, certain of when we meet the mark, and know the next steps so we can continually improve. It isn’t a matter of self-esteem, it’s a matter of creating a culture where constant progress is the norm. Creating a culture of excellence requires that we offer ongoing feedback.
I am certainly not saying we should structure our work environments as a competition and rank our employees or each other – this would be a little demoralizing. However, at ACHIEVE we have grown in our confidence that giving honest feedback about our performance exponentially improves the quality of the resources and services we provide. It also has the effect of motivating and engaging our leadership and staff.
People are happiest when they are learning and growing – this is part of human nature. There is no standing still, we are either moving forward, in a state of atrophy, or regressing.
Striving for excellence is not an individual pursuit. We all need the support and especially the feedback of those around us. Cultures that normalize the experience of feedback will continue to have employees who grow, adapt, and improve.
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