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Want to Succeed in a Competitive Marketplace?

Social dance develops the three skills that you need.

Richard Powers

Stanford University strives to prepare its students for a competitive marketplace. The unfortunate implication of that phrase, if one fails to examine it, is that a competitive personality is necessary to succeed. This implication is unfortunate, because a competitive personality is the opposite of what is actually needed to succeed in most businesses today. In fact, those with the most competitive attitudes are the ones who usually fail.

This is because most businesses today work in teams. Whether you're a software engineer or a manager, a technician or an analyst, success is based on your ability to work effectively with your team. You win when your team wins. This is the strategy of Google, Apple, and most businesses. Cooperation and collaboration win, not competitiveness.

I stay in touch with many of my former students, who are often working in the Information Technology field, so I hear the same stories over and over—about managers and engineers with overly competitive personalities being pushed off the team and faring poorly on performance reviews. No one wants to work with them, so they end up being reassigned to small solo projects where they can do less harm.

            Here are the specifics

Those who succeed in today's business environment have developed three essential qualities:

Respect for others on the team—valuing what others have to offer, and wanting everyone on your team to succeed. You want them to win.

● The ability to listen to others—deeply listen—to completely understand and learn from them.

● The ability to quickly adapt to a rapidly changing situation. This skill is becoming increasingly important—the ability to turn on a dime when a situation isn't what you expected.


Conversely, competitive personalities usually fail in today's business environment for the same three reasons:

● Lack of respect. Competitive people feel they need to win and others must lose. They want to be seen as the best, so they marginalize the work of others on the team. Everyone else on the team senses this from the outset, knowing that they won't have a successful team because of this person.

● Inability to listen. They tend to be controlling personalities, monopolizing discussions with their ideas and opinions. When other teammates are presenting their work, competitive personalities are thinking about their rebuttal, instead of deeply listening to learn from the others.

● Inflexibility. Teamwork relies on consensus, but to a competitive personality, agreeing with a teammate feels like they are caving in to someone else's opinion—it feels like losing instead of winning. Furthermore, to a competitive personality, changing one's mind is a sign of weakness—"waffling." They think that to be strong, one needs to stick to one's position without yielding. This is an especially fatal flaw in today's rapidly changing technology and marketplace. Those who can't adapt are left behind.

            Preparing for the real world

Unfortunately, the competition for top grades at most universities reinforces competitive behavior. Professors are warned against grade inflation—not everyone is allowed to receive an A. Everyone on the team can't win. Students therefore know that their fellow student's success might mean a lower grade for themselves. This situation breeds competitive attitudes, which unintentionally sets students on a path toward failure in a team-based business world. This also misses the fact that in the real world, everyone on a team can win, if they've developed the qualities of respect, deep listening and flexibility.

Since these three skills are critical for success in today's competitive marketplace, where are they taught and practiced at Stanford, to prepare students for the real world?

As any of the Dance Division's social dance students will tell you, they spend as much class time developing these three positive qualities as they do learning dance steps. Stanford's non-competitive social dance classes focus on constructively working with others in a win-win, rather than a win-lose, way.

      Here are these three positive qualities as practiced in these classes:

● The primary focus of social dance is wanting one's partner to have a good experience. As mentioned on this page, social dancers continually modify their dancing to maximize the comfort and pleasure of their dance partners. They respect their teammates (their partners)—valuing what they have to offer, and wanting them to be happy. We also emphasize respect for others in general, especially for those who think or behave differently than we do.

● Our classes have evolved the Lead role forward, to a dynamic where it is more listening than speaking, in the dance sense. Deeply listening. And the Follow role is more dynamic and proactive. Everyone dances; no one gets danced.

● Our students learn the skill of quickly adapting to situations that they didn't expect, and making them work out, one way or another, through collaboration with their partners. And even better, they learn to welcome chance intrusions into what they expect.

Through constant practice with noncompetitive social dance, we develop empathy—an essential quality for working with a team. We want to understand the people that we interact with, from their perspective, and we want them to win, not lose.

Respect, deep listening and flexibility aren't buzzwords that you can read once and say, "OK, I'll do that." Each of these skills must be learned and practiced. More than that, some of these skills require re-training, especially for people who tend to have controlling personalities, or who've been raised with a rigid one-way-only approach to problem-solving. It's also important to spot competitive tendencies in oneself and defuse them before they become a problem.

Whether through social dancing or some other discipline, find a way to practice respect, deep listening and flexibility, continually, until they become your instinctive way to respond to people and situations.

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