Cut Throat or Collaborative?

We are inherently competitive, or I would say most people are. Maybe I am biased because I fall squarely into that category.

I don’t care if it’s monopoly with my 10-year old nephew. I made him stay up way past his bedtime because I refused to admit defeat.

But is competition best when it comes to company culture? Historically, companies leaned into competition. Maybe it was a little old school male bravado leading the way, from the sports field to the office. In recent years, the pendulum has swung in favor of collaborative cultures.

Of course, there will always be outliers. Amazon’s takes a “Purposeful Darwinism” approach, and their stock price is doing better than fine (and we have drone delivery happening!).

Is there a balance?

Competition is Key

Competition is not a bad thing in and of itself.

Competition can motivate us and push us to be our best self. It is result-driven. And, it does deliver results.

It asks us to perform beyond what is required of us and to outperform our peers. It can lead to innovation (think how external competition keeps companies on their toes — or the smart companies at least!), greater productivity, and increased efficiency as team members seek to improve processes for better outcomes. It can improve the quality of our products or services and customer experience. It “can”. Let’s say you give a few teams the same task to create the same result. Everyone is working in the best interest of the organization and when it’s over you all share what you learned so everyone benefits, and nobody is punished. When wins are celebrated. Dynamic Logistix was name on of Inc 2020 Best Places to Work. Their culture is one that encourages friendly competition and relies on leaderboards and openly shared performance metrics to drive performance. “Employees win with humility and respect.”

It also has a downside. It is often fear-based with the threat of being fired which increases stress levels. It leads to information hoarding and, taken too far it can lead to backstabbing, one upping, heated politics, and fraudulent behavior. It pits people or teams against each other. It can create harmful silos between teams, particularly problematic when cross functional teams do not appreciate the role each other plays in the overall success of the organization and execution.

I’ve been there. It was very much the old school, boys club, eat or be eaten. I was hired essentially to do the same job as someone else. He was the favorite and I was the shiny new object. Who would win? Yes, that company had financial success, so you can say competition at all costs delivered results, but it also led to high turnover rates. You had exceptional talent walking out the door taking their clients and their networks with them. You had a ton of time wasted on politics, strategizing your next move and protecting your turf instead of just getting the job done. All of which is costly.

So, Is It Collaboration is Key?

It’s hard to imagine an argument against collaboration. Sounds all warm and fuzzy.

It too can deliver results. As Adam Grant noted, collaborative companies that foster giving behaviors are more profitable, productive, efficient, and higher customer satisfaction and less turnover.

Collaborative cultures support innovation because team members are willing to share ideas and, when there is less fear, people are not stuck in flight of fight mode which decreases creative thinking. Companies are more efficient as people are more likely to share knowledge, not only the basic information needed to do the job but what they have learned that improved their own results. You have a sense of team ownership of success and failure.

Yet, it is not all sunshine and roses either. When it is the team’s success or failure, you may have some laziness or complacency. You see an uneven distribution of work as a result. You may end up with too many cooks in the kitchen. You may end up with collaboration fatigue (it’s a real thing — read up!). You might find top performers are less engaged particularly when you don’t get engagement right. When there are unclear goals, roles, success metrics, deadlines, processes, … lots of frustration. Or, that person is doing all the work. We all had that group project in middle school where little Miss Suzy didn’t pull her weight. I don’t know about you, but it pissed me off!

Is there a balance? The job of a leader is to find that balance, I think. There is friendly competition and there is destructive competition. There are performance reviews stemming from competitive strategies and there is pure fear from the threat of being fired if you don’t fall in the top 20%. No, I am not saying everyone gets a trophy, not that nonsense.

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Kate Carney

I help women entrepreneurs scale businesses. I am a business consultant and legal advisor.