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The Collaboration-Competition Conundrum

June 5, 2017

 

It seems like a no brainer, a “duh” type of insight…collaboration is a good thing and we need more of it in workplaces and beyond. Yet I see glaring examples everyday of how in spite of employer’s stated intentions, their actions don’t follow. Collaboration is most daunting when working with those whose interests may not align with ours. Collaborating with an office teammate with whom we share common goals is easier than collaborating with those we are at odds with or whose self-interest trumps the greater good we both purport to pursue.

 

There is a long tradition bringing marketplace type competition into our workplaces with forced ranking systems where employees with the weakest rankings are moved out or the less harsh methods that stimulate competition between staffers (some friendly, some less so) in hopes of increased productivity, stamping out complacency and improving quality. Many will argue that some level of friendly competition has those advantages especially in the short term. 
Einstein famously asked “Do you see the universe as a friendly place?” William Ury is the co-author of what is arguably the most important book on negotiation ever written (Getting to Yes with Roger Fisher) and one of the most sought after mediators in the world.  His newest title, Getting to Yes with Yourself makes the argument that whether we collaborate or not has a lot to do with whether we see our potential collaborators as good people and whether we believe their intentions are honourable. I was struck recently by the news that engineer Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen tortured in Syria in large part because of information provided by the RCMP has been collaborating with them to secure bring his torturers to justice. That proves to me how powerful reframing can be. How we can shift our perception of others and collaborate.

 

There are other hurdles. Our workplaces continue to be built vertically and depending on leadership and management styles, the combination of structure, style and incentives continue to make the work of working well horizontally challenging but not impossible. I routinely ask audiences and workshop participants for their proudest moments of workplace accomplishment and my very unscientific survey over time suggests that when I then ask if that accomplishment was achieved by themselves or through some act of meaningful collaboration, the overwhelming majority indicate they were not alone in their achievement.

 

A local employer (who insists on anonymity) who long extolled the virtues of creating competition between his employees as way to stimulate innovation, motivation and continuous improvement has modified their pay formula which used to be comprised of an employees measured individual contribution as the largest determinant, combined with team performance has now included a whopping 40% of bonus determination on how well sales personnel assist others and demonstrate behaviours to make others successful. It has focused employees on how to grow the entire sales results (bigger pie) rather than everyone focused on increasing the size of their slice. Changing incentives and compensation can drive more collaborative behaviour.

 

The collaboration-competition questions extends beyond employees to between businesses and associations. Noted Moncton performance excellence and process improvement expert Merv Symes the principal behind the very successful Simplicity Designs recalls his experience in helping professional sports leagues and industry associations comprised of competitors. “Compete in the marketplace but not amongst yourselves”. He convinces business owners to collaborate through their industry associations and otherwise to everyone’s benefit especially their customers. 

 

Collaboration guru Morten Hansen reminds us that…"the solution is not to get people to collaborate more, but to get the right people to collaborate on the right projects". He urges leaders to make collaboration tangible, to pick the right projects, assignments or initiatives and remember that employees who are hungry for power, ego driven and always seeking credit by nature are not your best candidates. I would suggest they not be on the team in the first place if collaboration and getting people to do their best work together is the objective. 
 

 

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