One of the engines behind the Italian Renaissance was the concept of paragone—pitting creative efforts against one another in the belief that only with this you could come to see art’s real significance.
At first, the concept drove debates in salons. Eventually, however, it shifted into discussions of art, often among the very people who selected and funded it. In the Medici palaces, for example, rooms were arranged so that paintings would face each other. The idea was that people would directly compare the works, forming and expressing opinions. These competitions shifted the focus from the art to the artist. If one painting was better than another, you needed to know who the artist was so that you could hire them again.
Artists benefited from this arrangement, even if they didn’t win. They learned where they stood in comparison to others, both artistically and socially. Not only did they understand the gap, they learned how to close it, or change the point of comparison.
Da Vinci believed artists thrived under such competition. He once wrote:
You will be ashamed to be counted among draughtsmen if your work is inadequate, and this disgrace must motivate you to profitable study. Second, a healthy envy will stimulate you to become one of those who are praised more than yourself, for the praises of others will spur you on.
Many people want to know where they stand in relation to not only the external competition but to the people they work with every day. A lot of organizations make such comparisons difficult by hiding what matters. While you might know there is a gap between you and your coworker, you don’t know what the chasm looks like. And if you don’t know what it looks like, you don’t know where you are in relation. And if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know how to close the gap. It’s a weird sort of sabotage.
Not everyone responds to competition the same way. Pitting people directly against one another for a promotion might cause people to withdraw. That doesn’t mean they can’t handle it. It doesn’t mean they’re not amazing. Michelangelo once abandoned a competition with Da Vinci to flee to Rome—and we have only to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to know how he fared.
But a lack of competition can breed laziness in a lot of people. Worse still, that laziness gets rewarded. It’s not intentional. We just stop working as hard as we could. We coast.
Consider the proverbial office worker who sends out a sloppy first draft of a presentation to 15 people for them to “comment” on. What that person really wants is the work done for them. And because of the subtle messages organizations send, coworkers will often comply because they’re team players.
Consider the competition to make a sports team. The people on the bench (people who don’t start) make the starters better because the starters know they can’t get complacent or someone will take their job. Furthermore, the right to be on a team, once granted, isn’t assured. Someone is always vying to take any spot that opens up. That’s the nature of the world.
I’m not suggesting that all organizations promote a professional sport-like mentality. I’m suggesting you think about how you can harness competition to give people the information they need to get better. If they don’t want to get better after they know where they stand, you now know something about them you didn’t know before. I’m not also blindly advocating using competition. It has limitations and drawbacks you need to consider (such as the effects it has on self-preservation and psychological safety).