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Can You Both Compete AND Collaborate? Really?

Do you see yourself as a competitor at work? When you go to work every day, do you think of yourself as going to a win/lose event–like you’re playing power forward in a hockey game?

Do you see yourself as pitted against people in your own organization? When you walk down the halls, as you pass people by, are you looking at winners and losers? Would you sink someone at work in order for you to be able to swim?

Probably not.

There is no doubt we all compete at some level. You fought hard to get the interview and the job–now you have to compete to survive. You have to get noticed, chosen, and promoted—then go on to win the competition for dollars at budget time. When there are mergers, layoffs, and reorganizations, you want to be at the right place in the pecking order to survive.

But wait, what about collaboration? Is that possible in an environment of competition? In an organization of competitors, how do you collaborate as a member of a team to achieve goals? Competition in the workplace gets our juices going and can make us better, but collaboration makes us effective. Yet they seem to be total opposites.

Competition Vs. Collaboration

There is no doubt that an element of competition raises the energy level in an organization. There are some industries where internal competition is common. But toxic competition where people spend more time watching their backs than doing their jobs will kill an organization.

When Should You Compete?

  1. When You’re Competing to be the Person Who Raises Organizational Standards. We all know people in organizations who are standouts in their technical and leadership skills—yet people aren’t jealous of them. When you’re with them you feel that you’re with a person who makes you want to contribute your best.
  2. When You’re Competing to Serve the Team. Toxic, unhealthy competition dissolves when you compete to fulfill the needs of the team. I once had a CEO who told me that the way he got to be CEO was to find the job that nobody wanted to do, and to do it. Those jobs are always out there to be filled. Find out what will help facilitate the progress of the whole team, and be that person who serves everyone. It will take you far.
  3. When You Compete for Communication Channels to Lead the Team to Accomplish the Goals and Mission of the Organization. My goal has always been to shamelessly become the voice of the organization’s goals. I look for opportunities to be the sound of inspiration for the team to accomplish its goals—in email threads, newsletters, chat forums, and in all-hands meetings. You’ll get some criticism for inserting yourself into the position of communicator, but people will come to see you as that leader who leads by example and coordinating the group.

When Not to Compete—Instead Collaborate

  1. When Competition Creates Silos of Division. One of the primary reasons for deep silos within organizations is competition. We have seen organizations who vied with their own internal customers and wanted to be recognized as an autonomous independent unit with its own logo! This kind of competition creates a deep crack in an organization which will cause it to fail.
  2. When You’re Competing with Peers and Bosses for resources and authority. Competing with your boss and peers seems like an act of idiocy, but I see it all the time. If you’re competing with someone with greater power and authority, even if you temporarily win, you’ll finally lose. There may be a case when a palace coup works, but I’ve never seen it work over time.
  3. When Competition Creates a Toxic, Weird Workplace. A workplace of competing warriors is sometimes seen as positive by some CEO’s. They like the crash of competing ideas, seeing fights and who wins. Some organizations still place employees on a numerical scale. I heard one manager who went through having it announced that he was the worst manager in the organization. I cannot imagine spending my life moments in an organization like this.

Building Alignment in Organizations

Our experience has shown over the years that organizational alignment, where competition is minimalized and collaboration is taught and practiced, has a greater opportunity to succeed. Respect, truthfulness, and transparency create trust and an environment where teams can develop people with the greatest ability to achieve.

Austin, Texas

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Carol Kallendorf, PhD. | (512) 417-9756 

Jack Speer | (512) 417-9428


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