Competition or team work, which is better? An age-old question that has confounded the best minds in management sciences. It is not an easy one to answer as many have found over the years. I myself have struggled with the right choice weighing the pros and cons of one over the other. I have gotten varied responses ranging from praise for teamwork over everything else to competition being the life blood of any organization if it wants to flourish. An ideal situation would be to have both coexist in mutual harmony, yet competition and teamwork are at odds. Consider.
Every workplace wants its employees to be competitive for several reasons and rightly so. Without competition whether it be external or internal no company can ever hope to grow and be profitable. Competition essentially defines what a company is capable of and helps in differentiating it from all others in that particular field. All big corporations without exception instill a culture of competitiveness in their work force. Employees are taught that being competitive in every aspect of their work life is beneficial to their careers. Promotions, salary increases, and various other accolades are generally reserved for those who strive to compete. Such an atmosphere conditions most employees to see competitiveness as a vital prerequisite for advancement.
The most famous example of competition between teams going for the same objective comes from the Manhattan Project which pioneered the development of an atomic bomb. Commanding General Leslie Groves commissioned two independent teams to concurrently work on separate bomb designs (fission versus fusion). This was done with a view to get to the objective faster and in doing so generate intense competition between the teams vying for scarce resources, facilities and personnel. This competitive design worked and both teams were able to achieve their objectives in record time. There was very little collaboration between the teams in this instance due to differing designs, but both still achieved their objectives. It would seem thus that being competitive is better than collaboration or team work but that is not true in every case.
An inherent sense of urgency is created by competition. Its no secret that a competitive environment elevates stress levels due to expectations for higher productivity and efficiency. This directly affects team morale and can be counter productive as far as efficiency is concerned. Individuals in a competitive environment will never give a second thought to being collaborative as it directly negates their advantage. I have been in many such situations at my work place and always feel conflicted between sharing of ideas and being competitive. I do feel energized and work with increased focus for completion of the project or task while operating with a competitive mindset. This focus will be considerably diminished if there were no deadlines or an urge to best your peers.
Creativity, cooperation, innovation and improved division of work are among the various benefits of team work.
While external competition is positively reinforced as a trait to develop yet at the same time team work is presented as a huge benefit to the company and individual contributors — this causes a paradox. There is no denying the fact that collaboration is the bedrock of any successful enterprise and without it the success of any project will be difficult to achieve. Creativity, cooperation, innovation and improved division of work are among the various benefits of team work. There are many stake holders in a collaborative assignment which equates to lesser pressure on individuals in a team. A project attempted in a team environment utilizes the best each team member has to offer be it expertise, innovation or creativity.
Borrowing from history again the Apollo mission stands out as an excellent example of team work on a massive scale. In a team environment a drive to succeed and do better than others is contagious and may feel very much like competition. I have been a part of countless team projects over the years and have always felt torn between these two opposing paradigms. I was leading a team and we were under tremendous pressure to complete the project successfully within a deadline. Some of the team members wanted to show off their skills and aggressively competed within the team. This was one of many instances that I did not know which way to turn. Should I preach competitiveness and complete the project quickly or have team consensus and opt for team work?
If the individual benefits for competition are greater than team work, why would anyone cooperate?
Seeking some clarity and advice I reached out to my senior manager and mentor, Jon. My question was simple — If the individual benefits for competition are greater than team work, why would anyone cooperate? In such a situation an individual would surely prefer competition over team work. Aside from the usual argument that the benefit to the company will profit all yet the classic question remains, ‘What’s in it for me?’ In Jon’s view individuals do get benefit from standing out and doing things by themselves but it gets compounded from being a part of a team. He further surmised that a single person cannot accomplish the same level of success on something that a team can. One should have the mindset that other peoples’ success in a team does not diminish our own achievement and its never a zero-sum game. This and later conversations with Jon made me embrace the idea of competitive collaboration.
Competitive collaboration is not a new idea and has been around for a long time in various forms. We have recognized that both competitiveness and collaboration are necessary aspects for a project to succeed and one should not be preferred over the other. Extending cooperation in a competitive environment should never be a zero-sum game but is always considered as such. We must firmly believe in the notion that by cooperating we are not surrendering any benefit but ensuring the success of the endeavor for all.
My experience as a technical lead at my work place helped me in formulating the following suggestions for promoting a competitive collaborative culture within an organization.
High Level Affirmation
For any idea to take root and work it must be supported vigorously by top management. In order to do this, top-level hierarchy in any company must undergo a fundamental paradigm shift in the way they think and operate. Promoting competition and collaboration at the same time requires believing in it first as without that it will not work. A leader will have to convince the team to let go of the fear and apprehension that comes naturally in a competitive atmosphere. If individual team members understand fully that being in a competition will not bring anxiety related to the threat of losing a job or income, they will feel anticipation and excitement — a precursor for innovation.
In such a competitive collaborative arrangement the leader is akin to a coach of a baseball team. His or her focus should always remain on the team and not the individual players. There will always be MVPs yet the challenging part for the coach would be to recognize the top contributors and at the same time make the other members feel that they too belong and have a stake in the success of the effort.
Leaders can also help in keeping the ideas and information flowing freely between team members, so no knowledge hoarding occurs. Creativity and innovation thrive in such an environment and this idea is now supported by scientific studies. Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut has suggested that our prefrontal cortex (PFC) part of the brain is taken off line under stressful conditions allowing more primitive parts of brain to assume control. PFC controls abstract thinking, thought analysis, planning and decision-making aspects that are strongly associated with creativity and innovation. High level affirmation is needed for any plan to succeed which is based on competitive collaboration.
Nurturing Innovation and Creativity
Keep innovation and creativity alive and do not let it die at the hands of collaboration fatigue. Team work has always been credited with the development of new ideas and increased frequency of innovations and this is true for the most part. Consider.
For any complex project to proceed some initial steps are mandatory like formation of a team, preliminary information gathering, definition of goals, and discussion of time frames to name a few. Then the project gets underway or does it? If the initial steps were not concise then it may eventually lead to getting more information, inviting more experienced team members and tweaking the goals further. This may go on and on leading to what some call as collaboration fatigue. Nick Tasler, an organizational psychologist believes that this confusion and indecision will surely poison the team structure. In his opinion there should be a crystal-clear understanding of primary strategic objectives about the project from the start. In addition, a clear and unchallenged identification of a leader who makes the call if the project gets mired in collaboration fatigue. If these two aspects are pre-determined and agreed upon then a competitive collaboration will work to its full beneficial extent.
Breaking out of Zero-Sum game culture
For the relationship between employee and the company to be mutually reinforcing, it must be based on trust. Management should help employees break out of a zero-sum game mindset. Any person working in a competitive environment inside an organization is aware of the finite resources on offer, more for one will mean a consequently lesser share for others. That invariably causes hoarding of ideas and lesser cooperation among team members. This in turn will stifle innovation and inventiveness. A company’s goal hence should be to reassure its employees that competitive collaboration will not translate into lesser opportunities for advancement, reduced bonuses or compensation.
Kristie Rodgers emphasizes this in a Harvard Business Review article that employees feel respected and happier when companies are more open and honest to their employees. This leads to performance improvements, renewed commitment and stress reduction. Every company can also divide its individual contributors loosely in two distinct groups — givers and takers. A careful management between the two is needed to avoid various pitfalls that may develop. Givers by nature are open to sharing and helping others with any and all information. This may of huge benefit to the takers and helps the collaborative atmosphere in general. On the flip side it takes away from givers in form of time, energy and sometimes personal goals. A good manager should be wary of ‘givers’ giving too much and ‘takers’ taking too much and instead push for a more balanced synergy between the two.
Collaborative competition if implemented judiciously can work wonders for any corporation. Individual contributors feel invigorated with the competition and are more willing to collaborate knowing full well that it will not set them back in their personal growth inside the company. A management that recognizes the personal interests and concerns of employees and has an honest dialogue about constructing a plan for fulfilling all of them will always be successful. If leaders can convince employees that collaboration along with a healthy dose of competition is best for their overall careers, then blossoming of innovative ideas is inevitable.
- Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- The Dichotomy of Leadership
Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
- Leaders Eat Last
By Simon Sinek
- In the Company of Givers and Takers
By Adam Grant (Harvard Business Review April 2013 issue)
- How to Avoid Collaboration Fatigue
By Nick Tasler (Harvard Business Review July 10, 2014)
- Competition Vs. Cooperation
By Perry W. Buffington, Ph.D. (www.charleswarner.us/articles/competit.htm)
- Work and Life: The End of the Zero-Sum Game
By Stewart D. Friedman, Perry Christensen, and Jessica DeGroot
(Harvard Business Review November-December 1998 issue)
- Creative Minds: Making Sense of Stress and the Brian
By Dr. Francis Collins (NIH Director’s Blog, March 18th, 2014)
- Game Theory — A Very Short Introduction
By Ken Binmore
- Do Your Employees Feel Respected?
By Kristine Rodgers (Harvard Business Review July-August 2018 issue)