"Plays well with others" is as valuable in business as it is in kindergarten. Organization who clearly understand interdependence know that production, creativity, and performance are results of joint efforts, not just individual actions. The synergy of individual efforts makes things happen in companies.
In a sincere effort to motivate employees to excel and perform at a high level companies design incentives and contests to reward high performing individuals. This belief that competition promotes excellent performance and benefits the organization is so pervasive in management practices we hardly
notice it. In fact, we take it for granted.
"When you get better competition, you run faster, "commented my friend's sixteen year old granddaughter following her win in the 800 and 1600 meter runs in a track meet in Georgia. I agree. On the track her speed is almost completely a function of her individual ability. Sports are often used as an analogy in business to explain the value of competing. In organizations, however, winning is more than individual efforts.
Competition is exalted by most business executives. They see value in competing externally as well as within their own organizations. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action have noted a downside to internal competition. It is a factor that prevents companies from implementing good ideas.
Our western culture reveres individualism. With incentives such as employee-of-the-month, merit raises, or top salesperson accolades, employees focus on personal winning. As Pfeffer and Sutton explain, this is a zero-sum game. There are only winners and losers. There can only be one Number One and others must be ranked lower. Someone will be ranked last.
I recall the CEO of a small company tell his employees at a staff meeting that "Mary" and "John" were the two most important people in the company. He said everyone else takes a backseat to them. I saw bewildered faces all around the room as hardworking, productive employees were labeled "losers." I was not surprised to learn the businesses eventually closed as people left one by one to find places where they felt appreciated and respected.
Cooperation, sharing information and helping others succeed are elements in winning companies. When someone's place on the pedestal is threatened, they are less likely to share information and support someone who could take their place in the spotlight. "Mary" and "John" did everything they could to stay in the spotlight. It did not include sharing information and cooperation.
The real competition is outside. Use the benefits of competition to excite and stimulate your team to action. Remember President Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon? We were in a race to beat the Soviet Union in space exploration. What are you really trying to accomplish in your company? Are you best served by competing with each other inside to do it? Could you achieve your goals faster by rethinking how you compete with yourself?
Improving and doing your job better today than you did it yesterday is one thing. Doing things well so you can beat someone else is different. Individuals can experience personal success without having to beat someone in their own company to do so. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot without even realizing it? Maybe Pogo was onto something in 1971 when he said, "We have met the enemy and it is us."
Ideas for building a cooperative culture can be found in Jeffrey Pfeffer's article, "The Perils of Internal Competition," Stanford GSB: Stanford Business, November 1999:
>>>>Hire, reward, and retain people in part based on their ability and willingness to work cooperatively with others for the company's welfare. Deal effectively with people who don't.
>>>>Establish measures that assess cooperation and devise compensation and performance measurements that create internal cooperation
>>>>Build a culture that defines individual success partly by the success of the person's peers
>>>>Promote people to top management positions who have a history of building groups where members cooperate, share information and provide each other with mutual assistance
It's possible to succeed individually and collectively by "playing well with others." It may actually be easier and I know it's a lot more fun. What is your experience with internal competition?