Why we cheat and the Performance Paradigm


This week I played a simple improvisational game with two separate groups. The game is called Disassociations and the rules are simple; one player says a word and the other player has to say a word that is entirely unconnected with the first word.

For example, I might say clock and then you might say sandwich.

If the first player thinks he or she can see a strong connection between the two words then they can challenge and win a point. The challenge is judged by a third party. If no connection is seen or no challenge is made then it is now back to player one who must think of an unconnected word, and so on.

But the specifics of the game aren’t important. What I want to talk about today is how, on both occasions, players cheated. Or, more to the point, why they cheated.

This game is pretty easy to cheat. In this instance cheating is more akin to hacking the game than doing anything more active. It’s the improvisational equivalent of sticking the egg to your spoon. If you do it right, the only person who can tell you’re doing it is you. What happened, fairly quickly, was that players started thinking of words ahead of time, not waiting for the word they had to respond to. This trick would mean that it would take a great coincidence for the word to be connected in some strong way.

I noticed this cheating on both occasions in part because I had done the exact same thing when I first played the game with my wife. I cheated even though, at that moment, the entire point was to test out the game!

So the first thing I should point out is that I am in no way judging the players who cheated. In fact, cheating in this game displays both creative thinking and a strong desire to win, neither of which are essentially bad.

But, of course, as a training exercise this game loses all its value when you cheat in this way. So why did so many people do it?

I run training courses for various companies and one strong theme I have noticed is the desire to incorporate competitive elements into the training. Competitions, prizes, and ranking of teams and individuals based on how they performed during the course seem to be very popular. I have always felt an instinctive dislike for this idea and pushed back against it with various levels of success. But until now I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on exactly why I don’t like this competitive element.

I’ve pointed out that it can lead to negative feelings among those who are seen to have performed less well than others, that the stress and tension of competition can make it harder to learn, and so on. But now I see that the problem is the concept of performance itself, what I call the Performance Paradigm.

The Performance Paradigm is a concept of how the world is, how we are expected to behave, and how we are being viewed. If we relate to life as a performance then some behaviours naturally flow from that relationship. If life is a performance then:

- I am being judged

- If it cannot be seen and measured then it doesn’t matter

- If someone else is doing better than me then I am failing

- Failure of any kind of bad

- Sharing incomplete ideas is giving away competitive advantage

- Personal insights and growth have no direct value

There are many more ideas that flow from the Performance Paradigm but I would like to focus on that last one because, for me, its the most important.

If we see training as existing within the Performance Paradigm then we are focused externally, looking outwards at how our actions are perceived by others, prioritising what is visible over what is invisible. If this is the case we cannot be focused internally, seeking deeper insights into ourselves.

My method, using play, coaching, and mindfulness to drive self directed change is dependent on shifting people away from this external view and towards the internal. In my way of working what is visible on the outside is not important in the slightest. What matters is your internal process, your personal insights and the growth that can arise from them. So it follows that I have to do everything I can to remove this Performance Paradigm from my training courses and replace it with a paradigm based on exploration, practice, experimentation, and self knowledge.

We live in a culture that cares deeply about performance. We learn from an early age that doing it right gets rewarded while mistakes get punished. And this may be why we quickly drop things we believe ourselves to not be “good at”. All toddlers paint, sculpt, act, dance, sing, play whatever sport appeals to them, and very few consider their performance in any given activity before they choose to partake. I think that’s because they haven’t yet learned to value their experience only in terms of some quasi-objective external judgement of quality.

How many useful practices have you withdrawn from because you have decided you aren’t good at them? If you used to paint but stopped because your paintings weren’t good, have you stopped to think about how that practice of painting may have been massively useful to you in ways that had nothing to do with the quality of the resultant image?

On the other side, how often have you judged someone else for doing something that they aren’t good at? I offer this question without meaning to attack you because I do this myself - and I have less excuse than anyone considering what I do for a living. Have you ever laughed at someone’s armature poetry or mocked someone for their mediocre dancing? If so, this is the Performance Paradigm at work, limiting others just as it limits you.

The Performance Paradigm is so overwhelmingly powerful that it causes us to avoid activities that may be good for us in order to not be seen to do anything we aren’t good at, and to cheat in training because we have learned to value the appearance of high performance over real learning. It’s obvious that this is not a state of affairs we can allow to continue.

Whether at work or in your personal life I would urge you to look at and consider your language and your actions and ask if you are applying the Performance Paradigm inappropriately, and in ways that may be limiting to yourself and to others. As they say in improv - everything is an offer. Be open to them.