Why Do We Sometimes Compete When We Should Collaborate?

About a year ago I participated in a work training around collaboration and culture. We were asked to play a game which involved getting into a pair with someone else around the same height, clasping hands, and attempting to make contact with the partner’s shoulder. The objectives of the game were described  as “to win” by “getting more points.” It was not clear exactly who needed to earn those points; that’s where the trouble started.

As you might expect, the majority of players (including me and my partner) attempted to maximize their own points while minimizing their partner’s. At the end, the instructors pointed out that partners could have worked collaboratively to maximize their collective points. While their objective was to make us aware of our natural tendency to treat projects as zero-sum games where we can “win,” I would argue that what they really demonstrated was the ease with which we impose certain norms on ambiguous situations.

In an ideal world, we’d all work in companies where the culture clearly values collective success. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case–sometimes the corporate world really does present us with zero-sum games, such as when members of a team receive their financial bonuses from the same limited pool. Sure, it’s better for the company and team if everyone does well, but there’s still an advantage to be a stronger individual performer than the person sitting next to you. We all want the bigger bonus.

Looking back, I can’t blame anyone in that training exercise for treating the game competitively. Without explicit permission to cooperate, we reverted to normal workplace norms which may give lip service to collaboration but actually reward individual dominance.

The lesson I took away from this is that if you want to encourage collaborative behavior over competition, you should do at least two things:

  • Be as explicit as possible that you’d like people to cooperate. There is no harm in telling people what you expect, and most people will get frustrated after a while if they feel they have to guess at what you want.
  • If you are providing any sort of rewards for performance, work to make sure those reflect a value on collaboration rather than competition. It’s not always possible to do this depending on your position in the organization–when I was a manager, we were required to rate employees on a curve by our corporate HR. But even if formal compensation systems are designed to reward individuals, informal rewards such as public acknowledgements of accomplishment can be structured to emphasis team success.

Do you think you would have collaborated or competed during that training session? What recommendations do you have to promote collaboration over competition?