On Competition and Co-operation

 Swami Gulagulaananda said:

"He who competes in a cooperative game is but surely a fool"

When I watched the movie A Beautiful Mind, I liked the idea of Game Theory - And being a fan of all kinds of games, I thought Game Theory would be useful in some video game that I played (apparently I wasn't very smart). It was only later when I read about it, I found it to be something totally different.

Game Theory is an interesting concept, and it helps us to choose the best move based on the outcomes that we desire. Let us look at the nature of games that we typically play - whether it is chess, carrom, football or cricket - Our objective is to win and ensure that the opponent loses. In these games, there is always a winner and a loser (Let's ignore ties), and such games are called Zero-sum games. Participants in such games play to win, to ensure their victory and the defeat of the opponent. On the other hand, there is a second type of games called Co-operative games, and as the name suggests, games where players play cooperatively towards a common objective.

Let us try to see if we can apply these concepts in some real-world examples. Corporate companies, especially IT companies, have employees organised hierarchically into teams. Teams, as the name suggests, are supposed to work towards a common goal. When a team is assigned some work, one expects that the team divides the piece of work into subtasks, distributes them amongst themselves and accomplishes the sub-tasks, thereby completing the assigned task. Therefore, teamwork is a good example of co-operative games.

Let us look at how employees get promoted - An employee is allotted some work, the employee delivers it and then the employee gets promoted if the quality was consistently good. However, for the employee to be considered to be competent and promotion-worthy, the employee should have been given sufficient opportunities to demonstrate his competence. The projects should be sufficiently complex for him to demonstrate his abilities. However, if the project is not complex enough, it becomes harder for his manager to evaluate his competence. This means that the nature of allocated projects becomes important.

Now let's look at the previous case where a project is given to a team and is broken into sub-tasks to be distributed among the team members. Since every team member is looking to get promoted, every team member competes to get the juiciest piece of work. However, as all pieces are not substantial enough,  some employees will have to settle for something not complex enough. Here we see that something that was truly cooperative in theory became competitive in practice. This competition often leads to conflict with peers, ill-will towards managers and general unhappiness among employees.

The main reason for the conflict is the feeling among people to win - In the philosophical sense, one would argue that it is ego that is coming into the picture - The old cliche "There is no I in TEAM" does not seem to apply in practice.

One can observe similar examples in traffic signals. When vehicles are driving down lanes, playing cooperatively by letting others go through, not causing slam brakes and giving adequate warnings to others seems to make sense - A cooperative game will result in overall smoother traffic. However, as people resort to playing zero-sum games, games where they get to pass through smoothly and to hell with others, the traffic ends up being in disarray. The same can be applied in management hierarchies, family lives, and myriad such situations.

Competition is great, and competition results in great innovation. But people should compete when it is correct to compete, and not compete in cooperative games. When people begin to compete in cooperative games, especially when they are on the same team, the result is surely going to be disastrous. In cooperative games, people should come together to support one another and work towards successfully achieving a common goal. The more you compete in cooperative games, the more stressful you will find the game...


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