On more than one occasion, a client has openly crowed about the “healthy competition” that goes on within the company.  You can hear their jaws drop when I respond “Gee, that’s too bad.”  You see, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen healthy internal competition; so, from my perspective, that concept is just as much an oxymoron as “family business”.  Perhaps Walt Kelly, who wrote the famous and well read comic strip “Pogo”, summed it up best in an often quoted frame:  “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Many successful business owners and leaders are competitive spirits, confident risk takers, creative and innovative people who believe that employee engagement in the business – family or otherwise – and personal respect are rewards that must be won.  As a result, they set up incentives, rewards, promotions and other forms of personal and professional advancement so that there can only be a few winners – possibly as few as one – and multiple losers.  All of this effort is made to honor the rationalized belief that “Healthy competition is good for us.”

Competition has its place.  And, it’s not within the organization.  At its best, I don’t know what internal competition teaches that cannot be learned in a less adversarial setting.  At its worst, internal competition generates a host of negative behaviors, including:

  • Turf wars and sibling rivalries;
  • Lack of commitment to the success of others;
  • Broken trust among colleagues and family members; and,
  • Focus on personal gain rather than collective well-being.

In short, compete externally and collaborate internally.  Save your competitive zeal for those who want to capture a larger share of your market.  That’s where it pays dividends.  Internal competition is essentially assertive and uncooperative behavior.  It’s the “let me show you how much power I have” behavior that drives us toward our own concerns, usually at some other person’s or the organization’s expense.  It’s particularly oxymoronic if one of your stated values is “Teamwork”.

Internal collaboration on the other hand, is essentially assertive and cooperative.  It’s an approach used by mountain climbers who believe that those who stay at the base camp are just as valuable as those who actually make it to the top of Mount Everest.  When properly used, collaboration helps:

  • Develop integrated solutions to problems too important to be compromised;
  • Test assumptions that may be blocking learning and progress;
  • Gain commitment for “buy-in”; and,
  • Focus on business and/or family goals rather than individual aspirations.

Collaboration is not weakness.  It’s actually quite hard, and that’s why there’s so little of it.  It’s much easier to throw everyone into the ring and see who comes out alive.  That might be more fun to watch, but it probably won’t take you where you want to go.

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