Overcoming Inappropriate Competition in the Workplace

by Avery Henderson, Ph.D., M.P.H.

When used appropriately, competition raises the bar for the quality of goods and services, as well as the skill levels of employees. However, inappropriate uses of competition can result in turf wars, budget fights, incentive programs that reward only a few, destroyed interpersonal relationships, low morale and productivity, and needless conflicts. Many leaders, managers and employees, who are otherwise affable, reasonable, peaceful people, buy into the competitive WIN/LOSE paradigm without questioning its true effects.

The Game

In my leadership, teambuilding, and conflict resolution training for organizations, we play a game early in the session. I separate people into two similar-sized groups and say that the goal is “to get as many points as possible.” After describing the rules, I send the groups away to strategize. When the groups return, in 99% of the time, the game will be played competitively between the two groups. While trying to score points, they use valuable resources to block the other group from scoring. The usual outcome is one group’s claiming victory and bragging how they are “number one.”

When I ask what the goal was, the most prevalent answer is “for our team to win the game.” Others answer that they wanted “to prevent the other team from scoring” and “to maximize our dominance.” I reiterate the goal–“It is simply to get as many points as possible”–and reveal that there are 100 points possible. One by one, as they realize some of their resources were squandered keeping the other group down, each participant gets the “AHA!” Collectively, they realize how they automatically assumed a competitive paradigm to play the game against the other group.

Because of the division into two groups, they automatically assumed the groups were “teams.” The competitive paradigm is so ingrained in our thought processes that the division into groups is enough to skew what is being asked.

Implications for the Workplace

In my training sessions, I ask participants, “Who here likes to lose?” As expected, no one raises a hand. If no one likes to lose, why do we insist upon the inevitable win/lose scenario in many workplace situations? Would harmony and cooperation serve the organization better than constant competition?

Let’s take the paradigm of competition into the arena of conflict. Conflict is inevitable most days of our lives because of differences in personal preferences, cultural backgrounds, and life experiences. But there is a better way to deal with conflict than imposing the “someone has to lose and it ain’t gonna be me” paradigm

In his popular book entitled, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes three principles for interpersonal success that apply especially to conflict:

(1) Think Win/Win (mutual benefit in all human interactions)

(2) Seek First to Understand, and then to be Understood (empathic listening)

(3) Synergize (working together cooperatively resulting in a total effect that is greater than the individual effects).

When parties involved in conflict aim for a Win/Win outcome, listen to the other parties involved and empathize with them, and then cooperate, collaborate and figure out solutions that meet everyone’s needs, relationships are built and solidified, not destroyed. As trusting, cooperative relationships grow, conflict becomes less threatening and peaceful conflict resolution becomes possible and leads to developing high performing workplace teams.

Of course, no alternative approach is going to totally get rid of conflict in the workplace. Diversity and disagreement are important, and conflict may be an opportunity for developing creative solutions. Additionally, competition is very real when careers and promotions within an organization are being considered. So what’s a good approach?

The answer lies in understanding and systemically embracing the concept of “coopetition,” appropriate cooperation and sharing of information and resources between competing individuals and even between organizations. Coopetition is a key to the growth and the raising of standards in organizations, companies, industries and their associations.

Although many associations have practiced coopetition for a long time, the term itself is relatively new and needs wider recognition and acceptance as a workplace concept. Coopetition is based on the principle of the individual’s having the betterment of the team and the organization at heart rather than self-promotion. How well a person fosters teamwork, serves internal and external customers, problem solves, and helps to meet the organization’s goals become an important measuring stick for career promotions. Once it is accepted, promoted and utilized by management as an important part of the organizational culture, employees will get the message and their behavior will follow. Role modeling by management is critical to the success of this concept.

By embracing and promoting coopetition, along with cooperation, collaboration, synergistic problem solving, and creativity, an organization can overcome inappropriate competition in the workplace. The creative energy unleashed in the resulting cooperative teamwork can have a dramatic positive effect on interpersonal relationships, customer service, morale, productivity and the bottom line, and that will make everyone in the organization happy!

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