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Competitive Spirit

A competitive spirit within any organization–business or research lab–is only fostered when management is trusted and members of that organization feel that their talents and contributions are appreciated and nurtured.  Create that atmosphere and winning will happen. 

by Daryl S. Paulson
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A Psychological and Holistic Approach to Managing for Success

A competitive spirit within any organization— business or research lab—is fostered only when management is trusted and members of the organization feel that their unique talents and contributions are appreciated and nurtured. Create that atmosphere and winning will happen. But first one needs to understand some basic principles of human psychology, principles that reverse some of the top-down assumptions that, I would argue, have led to many of the current business failures.

Key to that understanding is recognizing each individual’s subjectivity, which refers to one’s perspective or opinion, particularly feelings, beliefs, and desires. We have cured illnesses, we have gone to the moon, and we have learned an incredible amount, but we continue to ignore our subjectivity. Since subjectivity is emotionally learned and thus lacks objective truth, many of us consider it unimportant (Habermas, 1987).

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But in today’s competitive environment, it is critical that managers acknowledge subjectivity within their staff members and work to understand each one’s unique point of view, orientation, and psychology. If you are a manager of a lab and you need to rely on your staff to get jobs done, you first need to understand what motivates and inspires each person on your team.

Figure 1. Me versus Everyone Else

Figure 1 illustrates the dog-eat-dog view of life that presumes no one cares about us and we care about no one else. In school we were taught facts and rules, but not about the “system” from which they originate. We also had our existence compartmentalized into subjective and objective components, but were never told how to incorporate the subjective aspects of ourselves into our actions and decisions. We are like the person shining a light on a Coke can who perceives its image as a rectangle. We fail to see the circle that is also part of the can’s image (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Dual Image of a Can

Figure 3. The Quadrant View

A more accurate and honest view of life is represented in Figure 3, a quadrant view that includes both the objective and subjective aspects of human existence. Let us examine these quadrants in greater detail.

Objective Domain – Me (1)
This is the domain that we inhabit in business, science, or mathematics. If we have studied chemistry, we are chemists. If we have studied microbiology, we consider ourselves microbiologists. We are what we have learned. These are areas we feel are paramount to our success.

Subjective Domain – Me (2)
This region represents our inner life, which, though hardly acknowledged, is critical to well-being. Rarely appreciated by scientists and businesspeople, the subjective domain is usually suppressed or converted into objective terms.
It is the integration of the subjective and objective components of life that finally makes us who we are. We will discuss this concept in more detail later.

Objective Domain – Company (3)
It is a unifying process that integrates a person with unique values and talents into a company. The process occurs when the company, which is nothing more than a system of science, business, quality assurance, and statistics, recognizes and applies an individual’s skills to its goals. Once integrated, that person feels part of something larger than himself or herself and is ready and willing to contribute to the objectives of the larger organization.

Subjective Domain – Company (4)
This domain, the corporate culture, is what determines the quality and success of a company (Kotter & Heskett, 1992). For example, if a company claims to support and nurture its workers but an economic downturn results in layoffs, the company is acting falsely, which will contribute negatively to that corporate culture.

All quadrants

The four quadrants need to be all encompassing. For example, if we work for a company but remain cut off from both the company culture and our own subjective nature, we are living in the upper right quadrant but are still hinged to the other three. Ultimately we will feel out of touch with ourselves (upper left quadrant). If we follow the norms of the corporate culture (lower left quadrant) and produce what is required (lower right quadrant), we are still living in only one quadrant (the upper right). It is necessary to break out of the one-quadrant view of life and view reality with a four-quadrant perspective.

Humanistic psychology

Humanistic psychologists believe that in every person there is a strong desire to realize his or her full potential and, according to Maslow (1971), the only way to realize that full potential is through self-actualization, which can be achieved in the following eight ways:

  1. Concentration. Experience fully, vividly, and with full absorption what we are doing.
  2. Growth Choices. If we think of life as a series of choices, then self-actualization is the process of choosing to grow instead of defend.
  3. Self-awareness. In the process of self-actualization, we become more aware of our inner nature and act in accordance with it.
  4. Honesty. Taking honest responsibility for our actions is critical for self-actualization. We cannot state one thing and do another.
  5. Judgment. We must learn to trust our own judgment and value our inner feelings.
  6. Self-development. Self-actualization is a continual process of developing our potential—physical, emotional, and mental.
  7. Peak Experiences. These are transient moments of selfactualization when we are more whole, integrated, and truly ourselves.
  8. Lack of Ego Defenses. A final step in self-actualization is to recognize our ego’s defenses and consciously drop them.

We first need to learn who, what, and where we are physically, emotionally, and mentally and then expand our view to see how organizations actually work (Figure 4) (Paulson, 2002).

Figure 4. How Organizations Work

In addition to being expert microbiologists, chemists, or laboratory managers, we must also develop ourselves psychologically and be aware of the culture of our company. We need to see how our company structures itself to compete in the marketplace. One way to do this is to consider the four quadrants and observe how every time we do one thing in one quadrant, the other three quadrants are affected.

Say we become a manager (upper right quadrant), which provides a new ability that makes us feel more capable (upper left quadrant). As we develop our managerial skills, we realize we are thinking in terms of systems and rules (lower right quadrant). The way we are now perceived by others will influence and reinforce the corporate culture (lower left quadrant).

Lower Left Quadrant – Culture

The lower left quadrant represents the business’s cultural, or intersubjective, attributes, which are important in establishing trust. Generally, when sales decrease, a company will lay people off; as a result, employees no longer trust the company. Their attitude then changes to one of trying to get what they can for themselves, and they are no longer focused on the goals and values of the company.

Figure 5. The Quadrant View

For a business such as a laboratory to be successful, management needs to provide employees with a sense of security and other intangibles that satisfy their subjective needs (quadrant B). This is not an easy undertaking, but once accomplished, it will allow employees to align all parts of themselves (objective and subjective) with the goals of the company (quadrant D).

Lower Right Quadrant – Business

Once we have people caring less about themselves and more about the company, we have a good chance of becoming more competitive. Why? People find meaning in the company because it represents them (upper left and right quadrants) and their culture (lower left quadrant), and, in turn, they represent the company (lower right quadrant).

Everyone has a chance, through the combination of science, business, systems, and cooperation, to compete at this point. In competition there are, according to Porter (1985), five attributes (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Five Attributes of Competition

Most people feel that the biggest threat to a business is number 3, industry competition, which is certainly the most obvious. However, the way to counteract that threat is to identify your company’s strengths, such as special capabilities, brand identification, and how services are sold. Additionally, there are a number of unique ways to position your company in the market, which we will discuss shortly.

Suppliers (number 1) can also be a real problem. If a lab becomes too efficient at what it does, a supplier, if properly motivated, can cut that company off. It is important to understand the bargaining power of your suppliers and, rather than be at their mercy, try to establish strategic partnerships.

Potential entrants to the market (number 2) can present a problem as well. Anyone can compete with you as long as they have a product to sell. This area can be shored up if you make it difficult for other companies to enter the market. This can be accomplished by aligning your business with the requirements of government regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Differentiate your lab from potential competitors by mastering the requirements of those agencies, including documentation, accountability, and inspections. This will require an investment in higher education for your staff, which will also set your lab apart.

Buyers (number 4) look for deals. If your laboratory does the same work as ten other laboratories, price can become the only competitive factor. Differentiate your services.

Industry substitution (number 5) is an ongoing problem and can affect labs in a number of ways. For example, customers may choose your lab’s competitors based on pricing or value issues. Other types of substitution may include suppliers that substitute different methods or use less expensive components in their processes or testing. Companies must be continually vigilant for substitution that will negatively affect their markets.1

Back to attribute number 3: Find and develop your lab’s competence based on and within its core values and strengths. For example, if you have a chemistry laboratory, your core competence is in chemistry. You need to expand your offerings, expertise, and skill sets in order to ignite your lab’s competitive spirit.

Figure 7. Gaining the Competitive Edge

Looking at diagrams A and B in Figure 7, which do you think has more power? Company A has a sales group that assists potential clients in navigating their market relative to the applicable requirements. The company performs the chemistry based on relevant government regulations, has the results interpreted by a bone fide statistical analyst, and synthesizes the data into a formal report, all of which is monitored by a quality assurance director or program. Company B simply performs tests. Obviously, Company A provides more value to its clients. In this market, Company A has developed greater competitive power than Company B, making it possible to sell its goods and services at a higher price.


Whether manager or bench chemist, each member of your organization—once all parts of the individual are addressed and nurtured—will have a greater psychological investment in the organization and a greater likelihood of making inspired, satisfying, and winning contributions to it. By thinking about the ideas presented here and opening your eyes to what is possible, you can release the power within your lab to inspire trust in its personnel and thereby create a stronger competitive spirit, compete fairly, and deliver new and greater results.


To be aware of the tremendous amount 1. of competitive pressure on companies and what a company can do to compete, two good texts are available: Competitive Advantage (Porter, 1985) and Competitive Business, Caring Business (Paulson, 2002).


Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. II. (McCarthy, T., Trans.). Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kotter, J.P.- & Hesket, J.L. (1992). Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: The Free Press.

Maslow, A.H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking Press.

Paulson, D.S. (2002). Competitive Business, Caring Business: An integral perspective for the 21st century. New York: Paraview Press.

Porter, M.E. (1985). Competitive Advantage. New York: The Free Press.