The conventional wisdom promoted by many management “gurus” is that in order to succeed in our careers we need to be competitive with others. Winning is everything! Although it is true that competition between businesses can lead to economic progress, when we see every activity competitively we fail to build meaningful relationships and learn from each other. Collaboration is a more powerful force than competition, a force which can drive innovation and build a better world for everyone.
History has shown that collaboration is more powerful than competition
In my previous post I talked about the need to slow down in the ever accelerating pace of our lives. Living in a big city can be at times a very dehumanising experience as most of us are strangers to each other. We are surrounded by people yet we are so lonely. As a result many people end up suffering from mental health issues.
In such an environment, competition to get a good job, or rent a good house, or even to get a seat at a restaurant is fierce. City lifestyle only amplifies the conventional wisdom of ‘competition is good‘. Everyone around us is a competitor or even worse an obstacle that slows us down.
The story of Homo Sapiens is a story of collaboration
The main reason why Homo Sapiens dominated over other species of humans was their ability to collaborate. While Neanderthals hunted alone, Sapiens hunted in groups, and behaved in more flexible and adaptable ways to their environment. Eventually Sapiens out survived the Neanderthals as collaboration proved to be more powerful than competition.
Early humans lived in small communities, where they invented interesting ways to learn how to coordinate and collaborate. It is believed that dancing and religious rituals were born out of the need to bring people closer together, and teach them how to coordinate effectively within a “safe” context. These collaboration skills were essential for survival in a hostile world full of predators and enemy tribes.
As humans evolved and populated every corner of the earth, they invented even more sophisticated ways of collaborating effectively in large numbers. Today, technology has allowed us to break all sense of distance, allowing millions to collaborate with others across the globe.
The culture of competition
In business, competition is mostly used to describe the market competitiveness of an organisation. In a way, it is a measure of economic success. Businesses that are competitive in the market are quick to innovate and address effectively market needs.
However, this type of competition is easily confused with the competitiveness (“survival of the fittest”) between individuals inside organisations. Somehow we have come to believe that competition is good in every context all of the time. Unfortunately, hundreds of management books reinforce this oversimplification that competition is always good. Ironically, businesses that have a strong culture of internal competition do not do well in the market because instead of working together towards a shared business goal people work against each other based on their individual goals.
Another element that influences our tendency to be competitive or collaborative is the culture of the country and environment we grew up in. Most societies have both competition and collaboration between their members. However, historically some societies developed a more egalitarian approach in organising their daily lives while others developed a more competitive approach.
Competition in British Culture
For instance, from my experience living in the UK, British people have a strong sense of competition. They see many things as a zero-sum game. After all, they did invent most modern competitive team sports. From an early age in school, they learn that life is about competing and winning. The British business culture, especially in the City of London, is similarly about the “survival of the fittest”. Of course, I may be exaggerating as there is a spectrum of behaviours across different organisations and parts of the country but there is something in the culture that nudges people towards competition.
In 2012 I was working for the Olympic Games of London with colleagues from more than 30 different nationalities, who had come to the UK to be part of Olympic History. I remember how we used to watch together some of the competition on big screens at the office. Although for most of us it was all about having fun, something that really made an impression on me was how my British colleagues would celebrate their medals in a serious and sometimes disrespectful manner towards colleagues, whom their team had lost. This behaviour alienated some of my colleagues and dampened my experience of working for the London Olympics.
In a similar fashion, when I play basketball at the park for recreation with people I have just met, some occasionally tend to become extremely serious about winning. Suddenly the “friendly” game between amateurs turns into a must-win struggle, as if we were playing for the National Championship. Personally, I find this quite exhausting but I understand that it is part of the local culture.
Cooperation and Collaboration in Scandinavian Culture
Contrary to the UK and the US, Scandinavians learn from a young age how to be more collaborative and work collectively as a whole. Perhaps this has to do with their harsh climate or other historical reasons that favoured collaboration over competition. When you have to fight the natural elements for survival you cannot waste your energy in fighting it alone. For centuries most northern Europeans, including Scandinavians, benefitted from mutual commercial trade by organising in merchant and commercial communities, such as the Hanseatic League.
Cooperation between companies and their stakeholders is increasingly recognized as necessary for the social and environmental sustainability of world and the long-term profitability of companies where we contend inspiration for such cooperation may be prosperously drawn from Scandinavia.The Scandinavian Cooperative Advantage
Theory and Practice of Stakeholder Engagement in Scandinavia
Strand, Robert; Freeman, R. Edward
Scandinavians have a more egalitarian approach in decision making and relatively flat organisational structures. In fact, the way Scandinavians do business differs a lot from their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. What matters most is cooperation for the common good. Their focus is on building sustainable collaborative long-term won-win relationships between businesses and stakeholders rather than engaging in unsustainable competition against each other.
Ironically that has made them much more competitive at the world stage. In addition, Scandinavians usually top all the surveys of the happiest people or best places to live.
In their book Tribal Leadership – leveraging natural groups to build a thriving organisation, authors Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright exemplify how collaboration is more powerful than competition. According to the authors, a tribe is any group of people between 20 and 150 people who know each other enough to say “hello”.
In their book the authors talk about the five stages of tribal leadership and how leaders can develop their teams to become high-performing by working as a whole rather than competing with each other. Their insights are based on a ten-year field study of 24,000 people in two dozen organisations. Every tribe, from a small team to a team of teams, has a dominant culture as described by the different stages below.
Stage One – “Life Sucks”
People at Stage One hate their lives and are despairingly hostile towards everyone. This is the mindset that creates street gangs, a collection of hostile people banding together against the world. Of course, this is not very common in the business world but is worth mentioning.
Stage Two – “My Life Sucks”
People at Stage Two are usually cynical and act as apathetic victims. Unfortunately, this culture is dominant in 25% of workplace tribes, where people lack the energy to bring up new ideas or demonstrate any interest at anything that is going on at work.
Stage Three – “I’m Great (and you’re not)”
Almost 50% of workplace tribes in the US are in this stage. People at Stage Three are lone warriors. For people at stage three it is all about winning at a personal level. For them everyone else is just not good enough. They want to feel they are the smartest in the room.
Unfortunately, most of us have spent our careers in Stage Three as individual competition is quite dominant in the Western Culture. In fact, there is a whole industry reinforcing this behaviour, from the thousands of management books that are published every year to TV reality shows such as “The Apprentice”, it is all about individuals winning at all costs.
Organisations reinforce further this behaviour by establishing individual performance reviews and individual bonus and rewards schemes. It is really sad that many young professionals think that the only way to succeed in life is by beating others. Organisations stuck in this stage have very toxic cultures and struggle to innovate and succeed in the market.
Stage Four – “We’re Great”
People at Stage Four understand the power of teamwork. At this stage there is a very stable partnership amongst individuals. People feel safe to be themselves, contribute openly and feel trusted. They act authentically and have a sense of pride with shared purpose and values. Like dancing with the right partner, leading groups at this stage feels almost effortless.
The sense of competition is only between groups, never between individuals. Ironically, competition in this case creates a deeper collaboration and connection within the team. There is better knowledge sharing and teams innovate more. This is the stage that most businesses should aspire to be at.
Scandinavians, mentioned before, seem to operate more at Stage Four (“We’re Great”) compared to other Western Cultures who may have more of a Stage Three mentality (“I’m Great and You’re Not”).
Stage Five – “Life is Great”
Finally, people at Stage Five have ‘innocent wonderment’ and their only competition is against what is possible rather than other teams or tribes. They are inspired and have a vision to change the world. Although, it is not easy to find many companies or tribes operating at this stage, those that do are responsible for many innovations and solutions to big problems.
Businesses and large organisations cannot rely on internal competition between individuals to succeed. As individuals, we have many blind spots and limitations. We need to work together if we want to be successful.
How dancing taught me that collaboration can be more powerful than competition
What Cuban Salsa taught me is the power of collaboration and how to operate at stage four leadership.
In my post here I explored some problematic dance leading styles. What they all have in common is that the leading partner in most cases sees everything as a competition. When I dance with partners who only think of themselves or only care to look good, the dance usually ends up looking forced and not fun.
However, when competition is removed from the equation, people always feel more relaxed, safe, and trusting. The reduction of stress hormones liberates our minds. We become more receptive to other people’s ideas and learn more from each other. When I dance with a partner who makes an effort to connect with me in a true collaborative spirit then everything feels much more fulfilling.
Dancing still brings together communities across the world as it has been doing for thousands of years. It creates an egalitarian spirit of collaboration where everyone is equal and everyone has something to offer and learn. Through dancing we learn how to coordinate with anyone no matter who they are or what is their background. We learn how to collaborate at a much deeper non-verbal level.
Of course, healthy competition within specific boundaries, such as between large organisations can have many benefits and can advance knowledge faster. But being competitive with everyone, everywhere, all of the time is simply counterproductive. Our shared human history has shown that collaboration is more powerful than competition.
When we have a shared vision and a culture of trust then the only real competition is against what is possible. I believe that as citizens of the world this is the highest aspiration we can have.