15 Apr 2021 21:21 IST

Thou shalt compare with care

The good use of comparison comes from getting inspired and improving ourselves, else it’s a downward spiral

The Sri Lankan Mrs World competition was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The reigning Mrs World, whose duty it is to crown the new one, said that because the winner was divorced, she couldn’t qualify. In a mean and petty move, she snatched the crown off the winner’s head and put it onto the head of the runner- up. The winner embarrassed and hurt walked off stage. Happily, her crown was restored, and her tormentor was brought to account. But the episode brings to mind multiple instances of leaders not happy with the success of others, engaging in needless comparisons and often misusing comparisons to goad team members into a toxic race against each other. Let’s look at why we do this and how as leaders we must tread with care when we choose to compare.

 

 

Reigning Mrs World Caroline Jurie, forcibly removes the Mrs Sri Lanka winner Pushpika De Silva's crown as Jurie declared that the winner was ineligible because she was divorced, during the Mrs Sri Lanka pageant, in Colombo, Sri Lanka.   -  Reuters

 

 

 

 

 

It is human nature to compare. In fact, leadership requires us to compare — ourselves, teammates, candidates in hiring, performance versus competitors, actuals versus budget. But we must be careful how and when we use comparison and what we read from it. When we compare ourselves with others, especially with the intention to put the other down so we can prop ourselves up, it points to deep inner insecurities. We become enslaved to the illusions that our ego throws us.

Relative terms

 

In his interesting book Contagious, Jonah Berger, tells of a study where students at Harvard University had to make what seemed like a predictable and straightforward choice. As he tells it: “Which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was one catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000. In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So, option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them.

What did the majority of people choose? Option A (!!!!!!!) [Exclamation marks are mine]

They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. They chose the option that was worse in absolute terms but better in relative terms.

In our leadership workshops, I often tell participants to imagine that their team has won a ₹1 crore lottery. I ask them to list down all the words that come to mind. Immediately, the words that pour out are — delighted, overwhelmed, ecstatic, thrilled, blessed, thank God. After they’ve exhausted their list of happy superlatives, I then tell them that all the other teams in their organisation have won ₹10 crore in the same lottery. The words immediately change to anger, envy, unhappiness, a sense of injustice and unfairness. I tell them that they went from “thank God” to “Oh God” in a matter of seconds without any change in their circumstances. They still had the ₹1 crore — but now the very thought that others got more makes them infuriated. It is this danger that we need to guard against as leaders for ourselves personally and when guiding our teams.

Setting right parameters

We tend to define our worth not as what we have, what we have achieved, our gifts, talents, results but in comparison with others. This can be a fruitless exercise especially because each person’s circumstances, constraints and opportunities are often distinct. Take the case of an employee who in spite of receiving recognition and acclaim is still unhappy because he compares himself with his colleague who received a different type of recognition. He feels inferior to her because the boss said five good things about her and only two about him. He begins to be annoyed with her, needlessly finds faults with her, starts withholding information she needs to do her job and subtly attempts to sabotage her. All because of the poisonous comparison he has chosen to make.

When we get on an ego trip, then every comparison we make is with the intention to put others down so that we get a supposed boost up. India, for example, tom-tomming its total vaccination numbers and saying how much higher it is than several other countries, is a meaningless comparison because total numbers is less relevant than density. We should be looking at what percentage of the population we have vaccinated and there we are woefully behind.

When we are focused on judging only by comparison, we sometimes fixate on the wrong parameters. My wife and I used to teach Catechism class at Singapore when we lived there. At the end of the year, we handed out prizes to the best learners. We took some trouble to shop for the right gifts for the children. Imagine our surprise when after we handed out the gifts the first prize winner seemed quite unhappy because the gift package the second prize winner had received was larger in size. If only she’d opened her gift before complaining she would have realised that her gift was much more expensive, better and the more sought after one. That may sound an amusing bit of childish competitiveness, but the same story is played out in different ways across businesses, across levels, across teams and across leaders. Leaders pick the wrong comparison parameters, wrong context and therefore arriving at the wrong conclusions.

Instead, if we use comparisons to be inspired, to get motivated, to improve ourselves, that’s a good use of comparison. Entrepreneurs, for example, who use the paths of their peers to challenge themselves, to set big goals, to learn lessons and change are doing the right thing. But if they become obsessed with every move of their competitors, trying to ape those moves or find ways to put them down then they have lost focus on the person who really matters — their customer.

 

 

Author and life coach Iyanla Vanzant

 

 

 

Comparison is necessary, when it’s used the right way, but it can lead to a vicious and downward spiral when used as a prop for the ego. Leaders must use comparisons wisely when they do use it at all. As life coach Iyanla Vanzant would say: “Comparison is an act of violence against the self.” When we’re too focused watching someone else walking her path, we forget to walk our own.

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