How to stop competition from ruining collaboration.

Imagine going to a music concert and, during the performance, each instrument section (or individual player) tried to outshine the others.  

It would be awful to watch and probably even worse to listen to. That’s because you expect this group of people to be working together to reach their outcome - not trying to outshine each other. 

Yet this is what happens in many work places.  

There is competition between departments and between people inside departments. Often, the dark side of competition also creeps in - withholding information, internal politics, and sabotaging other people’s efforts. 

 If only there was a way to make use of the spirit of competition but keep out the destructive parts?  

Ah, but there is.

A little competition is ok - for some folks.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with having a competitive spirit. Being competitive is a bit like having a super power that we can use when we really want to, and competition has been around since cave man times, so it’s really part of our DNA. 


On a personal level, competition can be a driving force that pushes you to achieve goals and, in business, it helps drive the advancement of products and solutions. If you played on school sports team when you were a kid, you know competition can also make things fun – up to a point.  

But if leaders in organizations put too much focus on competition, it can prevent employees from remembering what the organization is supposed to be successful at. 

Another important consideration is that leaders need to remember that people’s competitive nature comes in different degrees and it doesn’t work for everyone, as pointed out by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing.  According to their research, 25% of people are unaffected by competition, 25% wilt in a competitive environment, and 50% benefit from competition.


Competition done right.

The music world is a great example of how competition gets used in a positive way. Yes, the music world. Competition is alive and well in that world too!

For me, it started during my earliest days of learning to play the drum set. Every drummer I knew was trying to play the drum part from a famous 60’s tune called Wipe Out by the Ventures. ( go ahead - give it a listen - you'll see what I mean). It was a tune built around a drum solo, and playing the drum part made me feel I could really play, even though I had just started.

 It was every drummer’s desire to play this tune as fast as possible. It was filled with tons of notes and if you could play it, well, you sounded damned impressive. (You can see the draw for a 14-year-old boy). That alone made me practice, but any time I walked into the school music room and another drummer was practicing it, it made me want to practice it more too. 

This continued for me in university where my percussion colleagues and I would have competitions to see who could play their scales faster and more accurately. This was great because, let’s face it, playing hours of scales is downright boring unless you have a goal. This competition improved my xylophone technique a hundred fold. 

All of this really was to prepare us for getting a job in an orchestra, which is won (get that?) WON, by winning a live audition, essentially a competition against your colleagues.   

But, truth be told, all this competition helped me become better at my craft.  And that’s what competition is great for – helping people raise their game.  

You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that.

Michael Jordan

What’s it all about?  I think you know.

Notice how all those competitive things I described happened before it was time to get on stage?  Because once I got into rehearsal or on stage, it was all about producing the outcome  - the music.  

There is no competition during the collaborative process of making music, just people trying to perform at their highest level. Musicians are there to serve the music.  

Musicians use this term all the time.  When you play, you “serve the music”.  

Why? Because musicians know that if you don’t do that, you will be out of business. It’s what the people are there to hear.

Musicians never lose sight of their end product (the performance) and, as a matter of fact, they respect and revere it. 


A little advice

For those of you in regular “day jobs” going to work everyday, you might need to think of your work as your rehearsal and your performance combined. 

If you’re one of the lucky ones, maybe you get to see the product of your labour as a musician does: you put something together as a group, you put it out there for the public, and you receive some applause. Ok, probably not real applause, but people buy your product or service and maybe they let you know they love it. This probably helps to keep internal competition in check.

But many people with day jobs don’t get to experience an immediate reward for their efforts. 

Many people work day in and day out with a bunch of smaller (but no less important) goals. This can make it easier to lose sight of the big picture. Destructive competitive attitudes can creep in between departments and coworkers. If this competition spirit is left unchecked, it can damage the collaborative nature and ruin the final outcome that the group is trying to achieve.

Leaders in organizations need to keep reminding employees about the end goal.  Every conversation needs to paint a picture of the great outcome they’re trying to achieve together even if there is some internal competition involved to make it happen. 


Competition is not going away.

Let’s face it. Competition isn’t going away any time soon, and as much as I hate to admit it, it can be good for you even if you’re not particularly fond of it.  

For you hard working folks who see some of their colleagues compete with anybody for just about everything…you can only hope that karma will deal with them. And if you’re someone who is not a big fan of competition, just remember the wise words of Indira Gandhi:

"There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there". 

To the leaders and managers out there, know that providing people in your department with opportunities to become better at what they do via competition can garner amazing results.  Used carefully, competition can build enormous pride within your organization. Because, who doesn’t want to have the best players on their team.   Just remind them often that you’re all in it together.