Competition and Collaboration in the Workplace

Competition is a natural component of all economies at some level whether it involve markets, companies, or job-seekers. The workplace can make for an equally competitive environment with employees working longer hours to secure promotions with fancier job titles and bigger paychecks.

Now that more and more organizations are starting to adopt a distinctly collaborative approach to achieve success and build high-performing teams, it’s time to re-evaluate the oft-perceived dichotomy between competition and collaboration.

In “Competition At Work: Positive Or Positively Awful?,” Kristi Hedges refers to “coopetition” as the act of cooperation between competing companies and applies this same principle to the workplace. She argues that by introducing competition to the workplace, team members will often push one another to become more productive, ensuring the quality of work.

Think of it as a form of scaling competition. It’s the surest means in which team members can constantly challenge each other to grow while continuing to raise the proverbial bar set by the newly established workplace standards. While this might increase productivity to some degree, there will inevitably come a point where these benefits plateau.

This is where the unspoken danger lies: in allowing the workplace to devolve into a culture that is overly results-driven, encouraging incessant one-upping or, in some extreme cases, fraudulent behavior to occur, all while punishing those who strive to take innovative risks and adhere to their morals.

What happens when competition negatively impacts the workplace?

The Harvard Business Review featured an article about this exact issue describing how competition can be either positive or negative based on how employees emotionally interpret it. Specifically, they used the Wells Fargo debacle to show how subjecting employees to such high-pressure demands to open new credit card and bank accounts only reinforced negative competition, which ultimately was a detriment to Wells Fargo’s success (and wallet).

The significance here is that the competition waged by a quota-obsessed upper management is what led Wells Fargo employees to inflate their sales numbers by “secretly creating millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts — an unethical path toward results that has very high long-term costs.” In conducting such unethical business practices (out of fear of losing their jobs or being otherwise penalized for their lack of performance), consumers began to distrust their banks, which in turn, brought about organizational failure.

According to the article, this is the major difference between negative and positive competition. Negative competition is a short-term strategy with long-term consequences. Positive competition aims to further team sustainability and organizational longevity. In summation, compromising team integrity for quick results is not effective.

Here are 3 ways to leverage competition to drive workplace collaboration:

1. Find out what motivates your individual team members and capitalize on those intrinsic/extrinsic motivators.

One aspect of “coopetition” that Kristi Hedges doesn’t cover in her article is how crucial it is to understand what motivates your team members. Before you can even begin to arrange for there to be workplace “coopetition,” you need to first determine what intrinsic/extrinsic motivators most strongly affect each team member. This will better enable you to predict what forms of competition are most effective.

For example, someone who is just starting in a new position might be more inclined to want to prove themselves to the group and develop their own self-worth (an intrinsic motivator) as opposed to someone who has been working at the same company for a few years and is more concerned about how much they’re currently being paid commensurate to their experience (an extrinsic motivator). As a side note, be sure to always keep those motivators positive!

2. Focus on the team, not on individuals.

As with any competition, there are winners and losers. Make your team members feel like they belong to an Olympic sports team, where even coming in dead last still places them among the best of the best. And when it comes to ranking each team member’s performance, it’s easy to give all the credit to just the top contributors and to overlook everyone else’s efforts.

It’s true, while recognizing an employee’s exceptional performance is undoubtedly important, try to recognize each team member’s individual achievements as well. Avoid playing favorites and in giving preferential treatment to only the top contributors. Always keep in mind that the primary reason for establishing workplace “coopetition” is to reach some sort of common goal as a team, so keep it positive by focusing on what the team has already accomplished together, not only on what needs to be done.

3. Make competition about group learning and sharing.

Don’t be an idea-hoarder. When working together, it’s critical to make sure each team member shares their knowledge with the group. Doing so not only presents a valuable learning opportunity for each team member, but it can also help advance your organization’s goals. Additionally, sharing your ideas with the group can be a great way to receive feedback, allowing you to further re-examine your own ideas. In short, don’t withhold information at the expense of your team.

Are there any other recommendations you have for cultivating positive competition in the workplace?

Please let us know in the comments below.

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