Deborah Young

Managing Partner

  • Change Management
  • Communications
  • Leadership Training
  • People Management

09 Apr, 2020

Competition V's Collaboration In The Workplace

There is increasing recognition in the corporate world that the culture which we cultivate in the workplace can have a direct bearing on both performance and productivity. Where opinion divides, though, is in the sort of culture that works best.

Some companies opt for creating a sense of shared value, working towards a greater good to encourage collaboration and teamwork. Others, though, push for competition, often bringing in militaristic language to create an us vs them mindset - whether the “them” is market competition or, in fact, colleagues.

It’s true that some personality types will be more naturally inclined towards collaboration than others, and that some will only thrive in a competitive environment. The secret to greater harmony in the workplace is how you recognise these differences in talent, in personalities, in stimulus and motivation, and rally the troops to work towards the same goals and objectives.

The way in which you integrate both talent and personality helps to decide the balance between collaboration and individual power plays in your workforce. It’s when the balance tips too far into competition that companies can experience negative impacts; staff can get burned out, overly stressed, and productivity suffers.

Too much competition can also breed a negative culture, with resentment and arguments a regular side-effect. Manipulation and antagonism can make the workplace challenging for all involved, and those who are more collaborative by nature will either walk away or curl into a cocoon.

Understand the balance of personalities and talents in your employees

How can you, then, de-fuse these challenging situations? How can you ensure the balance remains on the teamwork side of the collaboration vs competition conundrum, and that bad behaviour at work is minimised?

The bigger picture, of course, is to instill a sense of a greater common good, something that everyone is working towards - whether that is a company mission, a social impact, or corporate values that steer all decision making and behaviour. Truly company-wide shared values will tend to point towards proper collaboration, and not just in times of crisis or challenge.

On an individual level, though, it’s important to understand the personalities and talents that make up your workforce. Just because an individual is incredibly competitive - perhaps they exhibit the so-called Dark Triad traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellian tendencies - it doesn’t mean they exist only to tear up your carefully-crafted company culture.

Instead of forcing these people down the collaboration route, think about how you could better deploy them to harness their natural personalities. Perhaps they could make great competition researchers, or salespeople that can naturally point out the flaws in competition. Think of them as externally-facing attack dogs driving your company forward against competitors.

It’s natural, though, that challenging situations will arise at work. To counter the excessively aggressive tendencies of some people, try using “aggressive friendliness” to defuse tricky situations. Next time you feel like you may “lose it” with someone, try to deliberately force the emotion into a very friendly offer. Make it with a clear smile and an offer to work through the challenge, because words alone could be construed as sarcastic or passive-aggressive.

“Even if you feel irritated and angry at your co-worker's behavior, you should approach him or her in a friendly manner, not aggressively,” writes Geoffrey James for “Your goal is not to "get back" at the other person but to achieve and maintain a dialogue that will solve the problem.”

Empathy goes a long way in the modern workforce

James says we should listen - really listen - to what the other person is saying, and remain calm, no matter what: “Work with the other person to come up with an "action plan" to resolve the issues that created the conflict. This is by far the most important step in this process because it gets you both "on the same side"--fixing the problem rather than making things worse.”

For Eve Ash at SmartCompany, it’s about the “3 helpful As - appreciate, acknowledge, apologise”. “Apologising and acknowledging helps reduce anger and stops a conflict spiral escalating,” she writes. “So seek to understand and be empathetic, as best you can.”

Miniscule changes in demeanour and approach can play a real role in helping to de-escalate situations.

And to try to minimise these challenging situations, make sure there are clearly accessible and clearly stated “rules” about shared workplace values. Make it known that bullying will not be tolerated, and that employees are expected to be supportive of each other and to work together to achieve great things. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and these are often best recognised by our colleagues, those people we spend most of the day with.

By playing to our strengths and putting ourselves and our employees into areas where we can all be most effective is important both for employee morale and for company longevity and growth.

Deborah Young

Managing Partner

Deborah joined Chaucer in 2015 and is now Managing Partner. With over 20 years experience across IT and Enterprise Software industries and having helped companies’ expansion from £5m to £100m, Deborah now oversees sales and marketing and the growth of Chaucer

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