Competition as Cooperation Requires Formation

Article / Produced by TOW Project

One way of summing up the practical imperative of ethical competition would be this: As much as you can, let the pressures of competition spur you on to deliver better value to customers, not to get ahead by damaging customers or your competitors. In a fallen world, doing this is difficult and painful. Market mechanisms do not ensure it will be done, but only provide the opportunity. The actual loving of neighbors is up to us. But it can be done, it is being done by many all around us, and we must do more of it.

At the personal level, the basic change is attitudinal. Do I view my competitor as a neighbor? How can I develop goodwill toward my competitors? Paul says just as we once viewed God with hate but now approach him in love, we need a corresponding change in attitude toward our other people (2 Corinthians 5:16).

One of the most important practical things we can do is to pray regularly for our competitors and for our competitive situation. It is doubtful that we will find any more effective way to mortify our pride, envy and greed than to ask God to provide for the good of those with whom we compete. We can pray for this directly, bringing our competitors before the Lord by name and petitioning for their good. We can also incorporate this into our prayers for blessing upon our own work, asking that the Lord would use our service to our customers to drive our competitors either to improve or to find new and different avenues of service. We can ask God to create a healthy, constructive environment for competition in our sector of the economy.

A natural next step from this interior dialogue is to ask God’s help to control our external dialogue and “tame the tongue” (James 3:8). How do we describe our competitors when we talk about them with coworkers and others? As obstacles to our own success, or still worse as enemies to be defeated? Economic competitors must restrain the desire to trash talk opposing teams, just like athletes and fans. While the Lord’s command to love our enemies implies that we can have enemies, there is no general need to see economic competitors as enemies (although they may be so in some cases). At any rate, we should not talk about our competitors in ways that dehumanize them or imply we desire their harm. We can instead describe them as benchmarks against which we measure our own success, a barometer of what is and is not serving customers well, and a source of discipline and accountability that keeps us focused on our mission.

At a deeper level, how do we describe the purpose of our work and our organization? When we describe our goal, do we describe the kind of common or public good toward which competition could coordinate our actions with those of our competitors? Or do we only talk about how we serve our own good?

This leads naturally to a third and vitally important step. Do our actions match these words? Are we, in fact, focused on providing for the economic needs of our households and communities, and promoting the flourishing of our neighbors and world? Does our organization seek to succeed by creating value for customers, and to distinguish itself from competitors by the unique value it creates? Is serving the customer the central goal of our work? Is improving the value we deliver to customers at the heart of our competitive strategy? The more we do, the more we aim at that shared goal toward which we want the market to coordinate the activity of ourselves and our competitors.

And of course it is imperative that we keep ourselves and our companies honest. The temptation to advance ourselves by hindering the work of our competitors rather than by serving customers well is perennial. This is why Scripture denounces theft, fraud and exploitation so frequently and so severely.

The idea that competition is cooperation is reflected in several of the Theology of Work Project commentaries (e.g, Matthew 5:7 and Romans 12:1-3), and these provide helpful thoughts about specific steps we can take to follow that path. The commentary on Proverbs emphasizes the question of what happens to those who lose the competition:

The proper penalty for failure in competition is not to be crushed or driven to poverty, but to be transformed or diverted to more productive work. Companies go out of business, but their successful rivals do not become monopolies. …Careers rise and fall, but the proper penalty for failure is not “You’ll never work in this town again,” but “What help do you need to find something better suited to your talents?” The wisest individuals and organizations learn how to engage in competition that makes the most of each player’s participation and offers a soft landing for those who lose today’s contest, but may make a valuable contribution tomorrow.

The commentary on Luke 6:27-36 makes a similar point: “At the corporate level, it means not crushing your competition, suppliers or customers, especially with unfair or unproductive actions such as frivolous lawsuits, monopolization, false rumors, stock manipulation, and the like."

The commentary on Philippians 1:27-2:11 offers two tangible ways to avoid pride in competitive circumstances:

As we have seen, ambition — even competition — is not necessarily bad…but unfairly advancing your own agenda is. It forces you to adopt an inaccurate, inflated assessment of yourself (“conceit”), which puts you into an ever more remote fantasyland where you can be effective neither in work nor in faith. There are two antidotes. First, make sure that your success depends on and contributes to others’ success. This generally means operating in genuine teamwork with others in your workplace. Second, continually seek accurate feedback about yourself and your performance. You may find that your performance is actually excellent, but if you learn that from accurate sources, it is not conceit. The simple act of accepting feedback from others is a form of humility, since you subordinate your self-image to their image of you. Needless to say, this is helpful only if you find accurate sources of feedback.

The Christian faith community can also play a role as the unique place of spiritual transformation and as a community that brings together people of all cultural groups – even economic competitors. Churches can reframe our understanding of competition by holding up ethical competition, or competition as cooperation, over against stereotypical understandings that absolutize competition to the exclusion of cooperation. They can convene occupation-specific conversations about what ethical competition might look like, and how it could be promoted in each field of endeavor.

We should also look beyond the personal and the ecclesial to the public. We should oppose unjust forms of competition that might be institutionalized in our environments, and seek ways of expanding opportunity to those disadvantaged in competition, such as the poor, the disabled and the marginalized. This can be exceptionally challenging if the status quo that we seek to change happens to benefit us. Yet a biblical perspective on competition urges us to reform unjust systems even if it raises competitive pressure on ourselves. (It can help to remember how much we often benefit from being under competitive pressure.)