Competition versus Collaboration

Miguel Regedor - November 28, 2018
We live in a competitive world. Would it be beneficial for organisations to recreate such an environment within the workplace or rather encourage a collaborative work environment?

I believe both are right. Companies are a bit like machines, and we must use the right tools to fix and improve them. The methodologies we use need to be adjusted to the situation, to the teams and the goals. Both mindsets offer advantages to be explored.

Competition is natural

People are naturally built for competition. We’ve been competing our whole life. In sports, in our early social life, or even at home with other family members for our favourite seat or that last cookie in the jar. At school, the teachers reward the ones who finish the task first… the examples are endless, and they show that humans are prepared to be in a competitive environment.

In business culture, the competition offers a way to increase productivity. People know they need to be focused on the goal, otherwise they may become expendable. However, this has some obvious disadvantages: it increases stress, leads to potential malicious behaviour and resentment among employees.

In addition, I’ve witnessed some scenarios when this methodology is counterproductive. If the competing parties depend on each other to get the job done, success is unlikely to happen.

This is aggravated if a manager believes he leads a collaborative team, but the individuals are in fact on a competition mindset. Discussions will become rhetorical, everything becomes slower, and no one feels like having the proper conditions to do a good job. In this scenario the competition is hidden. When doing retrospectives about the problem, the cause is often attributed to lack of alignments, miss-communication and general circumstances that are not anyone’s specific fault.

People don’t feel an incentive to compete in a healthy way and do the best for the organisation, but instead to wait for the other parties to make mistakes. Eventually, the machine stops.

Collaboration is essential

Companies tend to have a structure that put departments in an inter-dependency situation. This is the kind of structure that calls for a culture of collaboration.

Teamwork is key, and several studies have shown businesses that use a more team-oriented approach get better and faster results. This culture of collaboration has many pros: less stress, employees encouraging one another, more inputs, creativity-friendly environment, harmonious workplace, etc. However, this is not a walk in the park.

A collaboration methodology also has its challenges. The first one is to achieve focus without spending days in alignment meetings which may lead to stillness.

Another issue that often raises in these type of teams is lack of clear leadership. A collaborative environment makes room for too many forces to arise. It might sound good, but often the ones that push and talk louder get their way, and it can damage an entire project. People have different styles and ways of work, that’s why it’s so hard to anticipate and plan solutions for these challenges. Eventually, the machine stops.

Make it work

First, you need to be clear on what you want to achieve and which approach better adjusts to the situation. Then, you need to ensure everyone’s playing the right game.

can be easily compared to a game. Let’s use soccer as an example. You have teams competing against each other, where everybody knows the rules and plays accordingly. Still, a referee is ensuring that if someone commits a foul, consequences are granting a fair competition. When promoting a competitive environment, make sure the rules are clear to everyone involved and remember that someone needs to be responsible for them. In practice, someone (manager, team lead, CEO) should ensure an healthy competition, and that there are no significant dependencies between the parties involved. Also, it should make sure that the proper communication channels are in place, and the competition is appealing for both parties.
Once it’s clear that everyone can get the job done on their own, be transparent. Inform both parties that they are competing and what the rules are. You need to be a fair judge, and keep in mind that in the end, the organisation will benefit from the outcome. You can also state that at some point in the future they may end up working with members of the other team, discouraging any shady moves.

can also be observed from a sports point of view. On collective sports, the goal is to win as a team, not as an individual. If Cristiano Ronaldo scores a hat-trick, but his team suffers four goals, he and his team lose, therefore not achieving their goal. A collaborative environment must involve everyone over a common objective, and encourage all involved members to give their best towards that goal. It should be clear to everyone that there’s no point in running solo because there are no individual prizes: you either win or lose as a team.
Ensure everyone is up to date on every related issue. Be clear on what you expect as an outcome, and encourage people to lead the way on their respective fields. Present some guidelines on how to proceed and encourage team diversity. Make regular appointments with the team to catch up with their progress, so they feel supported, and you can ensure progress.

The soccer example illustrates the common factors for both approaches. Either in a competitive or collaborative environment, there should always be someone in charge of making sure everything plays out as it’s supposed to. In the soccer game, the referee plays that part, not as an active player, but as someone who oversees the competition. On the collaboration part, the one overseeing it is the team coach, giving guidelines and watching from the bench as players work together to win.

My personal experience showed me that both methodologies can deliver incredible results and massive failures. In most companies, competition and collaboration are interlaced. As a company leader, correctly identifying the two can be challenging, now imagine how hard it is to cultivate them properly at the right time. It’s like being the referee, the coach of both teams, and the gardener that makes the field impeccable before the game even starts. It might sound like a lot, but it’s worth to watch a well-oiled machine moving.

What are your experiences on this topics?