The value of sportsmanship in business

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(MoneyWatch) Just like basketball, football, tennis, or track and field, business is a competition. And competition can either be mean and dirty, or classy and dignified. It's probably no surprise that I'm a fan of the latter. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there is a lot to be said -- and gained -- from good sportsmanship in our professional lives.

To be sure, the sports world has had its share of scandal and shame lately -- from doping to game fixing -- but there have also been some inspirational moments. Most recently I saw an incredibly moving story about a basketball player who purposely passed the ball to a developmentally disabled player on the opposing team to give him a shot that was more important than the outcome of the game. And another about a runner who helped a deserving competitor beat him to the finish line rather than exploit a mistake.

I've also been delighted to see the good sportsmanship displayed by kids as my own children get more involved in athletics. Whether it's seeing players helping each other up on the football field or wrestling mat, or swimmers waiting and cheering for a struggling competitor to finish, seeing young people behave this way is heartening and inspirational.

"Business is brutal." "Kill or be killed." "Take no prisoners"... yeah, yeah, I get all that high-testosterone stuff. I'm not naive or polyannish about having to play to win in business.

But there are plenty of examples of successful companies that still manage to practice good, admirable sportsmanship. Zappos, my go-to favorite for so many business examples, will actively help a customer find a product at a competitor if they don't have it (disclosure: I do business with Zappos, but I loved them long before that). At the risk of horn-tooting, at my company we do the same thing; and more often than not, the customers we send into the arms of another either come back to us for something later, or tell everyone they know about our service.

In 2011, the leading independent photo/electronics retailer (yes, there is such a thing) in our town rescued a smaller competitor that was about to close its doors. Of course it wasn't entirely altruistic -- there was some business benefit to acquiring them. But the bigger company, which has prospered for over 100 years, certainly would have done just fine without it; as the only other game in town, the customers would have migrated to them anyway. But the owner was genuinely interested in saving a long-time friendly rival and a bunch of jobs. And that attitude alone was very good for business.

There are many ways you can show good sportsmanship in business, none of which will hurt your competitiveness (in fact most will help). Here are just a few:

Sell positively: There are few things I dislike more than the negative sales pitch. If your best sales tactic is to slam your competitor rather than tout your own merits, there is a problem. In fact, praising (or at least respecting) your competition while proudly showing off your own stuff can be much more effective -- and certainly a hell of a lot classier.

Don't win just to beat the other guy: If properly channeled, your competitive energy should only be used to benefit your company, not hurt another. How many times have companies lost money purely to undercut a rival and win what may be a one-time sale? Even though there will be a winner and loser in any competition, truly winning in business -- especially over the long haul -- is not necessarily the same as just making someone else lose.

Don't lie: It's almost ridiculous to have to say that, but it happens every day. Closely related to negative selling, lying (whether about your competitors or your own company) is pure sleaze, and sooner or later the truth comes out (ask a certain famous bike rider about that).

Don't spread rumors: It's common, particularly at trade shows, to hear things like, "you know, I heard Acme is having some serious financial problems," or "you didn't hear it from me, but word is that all the new units GlobalCo is shipping are buggy." Spreading gossip to make yourself look good or scare customers away from a competitor is a cheap shot.

Some people think that they have to fight dirty because their competitors do, and that's the only way they can level the playing field. I disagree. In any industry, everyone knows which companies are the stand-up players and which ones aren't, and in the long run the ones that play dirty pool usually get theirs. My family's previous business -- which we sold in 1998 -- thrived on good sportsmanship for 50 years while less scrupulous companies came and went.

And all else aside, you should care about your reputation no matter what.

If you're still not convinced that it pays to be a good sport in business, remember one other thing: What goes around often comes around. In sports, players get traded all the time and wind up playing side by side with their former rivals. The business world can be a similarly small one, especially within industries, and the way you play the game can either speak well of you and serve you down the road, or leave you face down in the mud.

  • Michael Hess On Facebook»

    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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