What if we promoted co-operation over competition?

I am reading Margaret Heffernan’s book, A Bigger Prize Why Competition Isn’t Everything, and the potential for organisations to build performance through social cohesion is huge.

Margaret Heffernan is a former CEO of five businesses, an author and entrepreneur and this particular book highlights the opportunities missed by organisations who create and enable competition amongst their employees over and above co-operation.

Adrenaline is only part of it

Put simply, Heffernan demonstrates that the premise that competition is helpful and necessary in delivering better performance is wrong. For some men (and not women) being in a competitive situation, for instance in sport, creates an adrenaline rush which can contribute to an individual’s performance. However, once researchers found this out we extrapolated that to apply to everything else and to everyone.

So school becomes competitive, work becomes competitive and women, who typically don’t experience this adrenaline rush, are expected to perform better under competitive situations just like men. In many cases, adrenaline doesn’t improve performance – particularly in the cases of problem solving where a more thoughtful, collective approach generates better solutions.

I win : you lose : now how do you feel?

In addition, creating a competitive environment means only some people can be winners but many more are losers. How successful do you feel when you go to the local comprehensive school because you didn’t pass your 11+? How motivational does it feel to come half way down a sales performance league of high performers?

If competition can negatively impact performance, Heffernan studied what contributed to successful performance. When she looked at highly successful teams, she discovered 3 characteristics:

  • They were higher in empathy
  • They gave each other roughly equal ‘air time’ to listen to each other
  • They had more women in the team

[We are not sure whether the last point is because we assume women are better listeners and more empathic or because a diverse team generally performs better than one less diverse.]

However, the findings point to a characteristic of helpfulness which outperforms any other characteristic of a high performing team.

Helpfulness is most important

There are simple things organisations can do to create helpfulness and social cohesion. Bonds, loyalty and trust are what motivate people so organisations need to create opportunities to develop these relationships. When one company synchronised their coffee breaks so that people had time to speak with each other, profits went up US$15 million and employee satisfaction went up 10%.

Synchronised coffee breaks, sports social clubs, company garden allotments (yes, really) are all a great start to encourage and enable cohesion and co-operation.

Doing away with competition in the workplace will take a little longer.