Is in-class competition helpful?

It’s a tough world out there in the post MBA /masters job market, students compete with those from all over the world, but is it really helpful for them to compete against each other, to see their classmates as a threat? I’ve taught in schools that profess to be teamwork-based and those that apply the bell-curve (schools that value cooperation and competition respectively) and it is a far greater challenge to teach communication, careers or creativity to a class that sees each member as a potential rival. This rivalry can be around jobs or grades.

While competitive rivalry can be useful in teaching and evaluating something like finance or operations, I believe it has no place in communication, creativity or careers. In careers in particular, it is a big mistake to think that of a diverse class profile with a varied experience, everyone is competing on the same level for the same post-graduation jobs. Seriously? This would mean that someone with 8 years work experience is on the same level as someone with two just because they took the MBA at the same time? Equally with work permit restrictions and a cohort of many nationalities, they same opportunities will simply not be open to all.

Luckily, most MBA students are quick to grasp the theory behind these ideas and accept that they are not all in the same pool of candidates. Still it is hard to get them to overcome the competitiveness that is ingrained. In career skills training, we necessarily work on our own cases: deciding where we want to get to, how and using what tools and techniques. But it is a very boring class that oscillates between a lecture and self-reflection and one which often fails to get results. So to promote collective learning, we attempt to share ideas and examples with the rest of the class. In business schools with grades based on the bell curve, even in these ungraded classes, students are reticent to share what they have worked on.

The careers training classes are often a challenge because they are often squeezed in between “proper subjects” and given the shortest amount of time possible. Something that Business Education Editor, Della Bradshaw points out in the Financial Times this week, “Executives need more communications and problem-solving skills, says MBA recruiters. Then we will teach them yet more finance skills, comes the scholarly response” she notes in her opinion piece. It is understandably difficult for students to switch the “competitive mode” where every comment in class helps convince the professor that they are better than their colleagues and thus move up the grade curve, to “happy, happy sharing mode”. Especially when they all know that it can be a challenge to get a great job on graduation.

I said earlier that competition was ingrained, but I do not believe it is innate. Even students in a competitive environment, are able to collaborate in the right circumstances. A few months ago, I co-taught a two-week class on Design Thinking in which students worked in teams for over the 20 hours of class to create prototypes of solutions to everyday experiences and present them in creative, persuasive ways.

The result was surprising. Not only because I didn’t realize that so many serious business students could demonstrate such theatrical skill, but also because they worked together in teams and across teams. In this case the bell curve did apply and its strict application would mean that there would be one group whose students would not receive the same grade, since a certain percentage of the class was required to get a C grade and their were 8 groups of 10 students. This of course, is a grading nightmare and they only fair option was for each group to grade their peers.

A complicated on-line system was designed to ensure that this grading remained anonymous and individual. Yet so great was one team’s desire to get the same grade across the team, even if this grade was a C, that they devised a way to ensure that the average peer mark of each team member was the same. They were not alone, other teams had students who were in danger of getting kicked out if they got another C grade, and they made sure to save this person by ensuring they had the highest grade. These acts of solidarity are not common on a “competitive MBA” but they are possible.

Most soft skills or careers classes cannot count on 20+ hours of teamwork to create an environment that is most conducive to progress in these areas, but I have not lost hope that collaboration is possible. Indeed it is an essential part of the learning experience, whether within a competitive or collaborative program or in a professional environment.

About Katie Annice Carr

Creativity, Communication and Leadership facilitator, coach and consultant.