Collaboration or Competition. What Works Better With Today’s Teams

Almost from our first breath, we are competing for something. Our entire society is built on the concept of competitiveness. We are taught that life is a zero-sum game where there can be only one winner, like some real-life version of The Hunger Games. Even when we are part of a team, we compete internally for coveted starting positions.

From a high level, this approach to life seems to work.  If you look at end results, most of the things you can easily measure like revenues and productivity, do increase when you force the “cream to rise to the top”. If you create a culture that pits one teammate against another your employees will respond by working longer and harder to be impressive and ultimately be rewarded with raises or promotions.

What’s wrong with that you may ask? The entire purpose of business is to create more products so that we can make more money and grow the enterprise, right? Well, yes and no. A business must be productive in a “sustainable” fashion in order to grow, and a hyper-competitive environment is just not sustainable long term.

I compare a business organization to a machine. If you run a machine at top speed for long periods of time without stopping for fuel and maintenance, it will burn out at some point. Also, if you’ve ever looked at a car engine while it’s running, you’ll see all of the parts working in harmony to keep the car moving.  If one part can’t keep up the pace or works to fast, the entire engine fails. Maybe it won’t fail all at once, but if one piece is out of sync, over time you will find yourself on the side of the road.

The same logic applies to the workplace. When the various members of your teams are competing against one another, you run into dysfunctions like segmentation of information and excessive CYA behavior. Inside of a high performing team, information should flow like oil between the parts. If the information isn’t flowing, it’s like your car running out of oil. When members don’t trust each other, they hold on to information and resources as if there will be a tally at the end of the day.

While many of us grew up with this mentality, it has become outdated. Advances in technology have removed the friction to the flow of information and resources.  Teams that know how to take advantage of this fact have a decided advantage in today’s business landscape. Let’s take a look at some ways to make your teams more collaborative.

Executive Support:

Collaboration has to be a top-down effort, if employees feel that they will be rewarded for making an assist or blocking a tackle the same as if they shot the ball or ran the touchdown, they will be more likely to participate in behaviors that support the team instead of looking for all of the glory for themselves. There is an old management saying, “what gets measured, get done”.  Find ways from an executive leadership position to report on and incentivize “team player” attributes. Don’t make everything about individual accomplishments. Make this your motto, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”.

Team Continuity:

It takes time to build trust, leverage that trust by keeping teams together.  Allow the time needed for groups to go through the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing Stages. Even if the needs of the business demand that resources be allocated differently, try to keep people together if possible to take advantage of the trust bonds that have built over time.

Task and Relationship Oriented Leadership:

I believe that relationship-oriented leadership is most appropriate in complex teams since people are more likely to share knowledge in an environment of trust and goodwill. Others have argued that a task orientation—the ability to make objectives clear, to create a shared awareness of the dimensions of the task, and to provide monitoring and feedback—is most important.

In a study of 55 teams by the Harvard Business Review, they found that the truth lay somewhere in between. The most productive, innovative teams were typically led by people who were both task- and relationship-oriented. What’s more, these leaders changed their style during the project.

Specifically, in the early stages, they exhibited task-oriented leadership: They made the goal clear, engaged in debates about commitments, and clarified the responsibilities of individual team members. However, at a certain point in the development of the project, they switched to a relationship orientation.

This shift often took place once team members had nailed down the goals and their accountabilities and when the initial tensions around sharing knowledge had begun to emerge. An emphasis throughout a project on one style at the expense of the other inevitably hindered the long-term performance of the team, they found.

If you want your organization’s structure to be sustainable with reduced turnover and higher productivity, you must make some long-term investments—in building relationships and trust, in developing a culture in which senior leaders support cooperation—and smart near-term decisions about the ways teams are formed, roles are defined, and challenges and tasks are articulated.

Throughout history, workforces have continued to produce by encouraging individuals and teams to compete against one another. Yesterday’s teams, however, didn’t require the same number of members, diversity, long-distance cooperation, or expertise that teams now need to solve global business challenges. So, the models for teams need to be realigned with the demands of the current business environment. Through careful attention to the factors described in this article, companies can assemble the breadth of expertise needed to solve complex business problems—without introducing the negative behaviors that accompany it.

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