Competition, the enemy of psychological safety

One of the most powerful findings from the world of neuroscience and what it says for improving our work and our organizations, are the behaviors and processes we put in place that undermine psychological safety and prevent us from accelerating our own performance and those of others.  I call them the enemies of psychological safety.  The first I want to speak about is competition.

Many of us have been taught to believe the idea that competition is necessary to get the most out of people.  Where we go wrong.  We formulate competition in the workplace not as a positive collaborative challenge, but as an individualized threat.  Emotional threat is most often associated with winning at all costs.  As a zero-sum game where my gain is only realized from your loss.

The stress that we create on people by putting them in this competitive environment, triggers our ancient reptile brain to see this as a war where we must defend and protect ourselves at all costs.

At the chemical level, when people are in a cycle of chronic stress, cortisol, the stress hormone topples emotional balance, drowns logic and creative insight, and reduces our abilities to perform and even temporarily lowers our IQ by as much as 40%.  Exposure to acute, uncontrollable stress increases catecholamine release in the prefrontal cortex, reducing neuronal firing and impairing cognitive abilities (Arnsten AF).  Competition inhibits learning and creativity by focusing us solely on the task at hand and closing our minds off to the greater possibilities of what could be.

Research suggests that not only is superior performance not dependent on competition, but it usually requires its absence.  If we want to bring out the best in people we need to help them to innovate, collaborate and accelerate together, not stress them into a zero-sum competition.

Creating an environment of psychological safety where we connect and support to explore the possible, is the path to higher-performance.


Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Arnsten AF. Nat Neurosci. 2015 Oct;18(10):1376-85. doi: 10.1038/nn.4087. Epub 2015 Sep 25. Review.

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