Leveraging competition to build more effective teams

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In competitive industries, building effective teams is one of the biggest challenges leaders face. With everyone wanting to make their voices heard, how do you ensure your teams work together effectively for the good of the organisation as a whole, not out of a drive for personal career gain?   

A culture of understanding, empathy and collaboration is essential to ensure your teams are working at their best, thereby increasing productivity and improving employee wellbeing.   

Encouraging staff to truly embrace such a culture is no easy feat. But, persevere, and the results will speak for themselves. 

Our co-founder Amanda Davie was forced to confront this business issue while delivering a group coaching session at a recent conference. The event was attended by business leaders who were all fishing in the same pond (or sector) and competing for the same audience, using similar sales and marketing methods. 

Building effective teams

During a conversation with one particular leader, they spoke about the difficulties he was facing in getting some of his team to work better together. 

He said that while, on the surface, there was lighthearted banter among his team, he recognised that, underneath the surface, there was rivalry, distrust and cruelty towards each other – which sometimes amounted to “bullying”, as he described it. 

Amanda’s response to this ultra-competitive industry was to suggest the attendees tried a new approach: collaborative thinking to tackle some of the issues they were facing as business leaders. 

She asked the group to create the optimal thinking environment by putting each other at ease, encouraging each other’s thoughts with their curiosity, paying attention to each other’s words and body language, and supporting one another’s thinking without influence or judgement. 

Some of the leaders optimistically embraced the task; others felt out of their comfort zone and approached the exercise with caution and cynicism and tried to deflect their discomfort by joking their way through it.  

The problem with office banter 

This particular leader’s reflection on his team, and indeed the challenge we laid down to that roomful of competitors, has got us thinking: how do we get groups of people who don’t want to work together to do exactly that – to trust each other and to collaborate effectively? And is office banter always a good thing? Does banter sometimes mask a lack of trust, insecurity or a perceived threat? 

Where does this threat come from? Is it competition? Is this why banter can turn from being playful one minute to unkind the next? Why do we use humour – or banter – to put each other down? 

According to Dr Kristin Neff, author, public speaker and self-compassion expert, we put others down in order to bolster our own feelings of self-worth; to bolster our own self-esteem. 

By putting someone down, do we convince ourselves that we’re better? This kind of cruel behaviour has long been associated with narcissists, for example. Being cruel not to be kind, but being cruel to be better. 

How do we encourage healthy competition?

Competition in business can be overt – like a roomful of competitors at a conference – or discreet – like a team of individuals who are all vying for the next promotion or pay rise. 

Often colleagues and managers can sense it, but can’t quite point to any theme in behaviours or, indeed, to what’s triggering the sense of competition. 

Nancy Kline, author, motivational speaker and founder of Time To Think, an organisation that helps businesses and their leaders to do their best thinking as a critical tool for success, talks about encouragement being one of the key ingredients of successful collaboration. 

Encouragement is the enemy of competition. When we feel encouragement we let down our guard and we allow one another to support each other towards finding the best solution. Not a better solution, the best. 

Do you want to be better or the best?

Sticking with comparatives and superlatives for a minute – Being better than another person or another business, i.e. the motivation behind competition, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re doing our very best work. It’s just better. And sometimes better isn’t good enough. 

When you think about competition in those terms, all of a sudden it doesn’t feel particularly compelling, does it?

Competition can, of course, be healthy for business. But it’s not always healthy for humans. Especially when our success is being measured by our collective thinking and doing. It’s how we are with each other that makes the difference between a top-performing team and a sub-optimal and, perhaps unhappy, team.  

How can we remove unhealthy competition from our working environments and teams? By building empathy, camaraderie, compassion, respect and trust – most ‘team building’ days, weeks or training programmes cover these off. 

And by being clear as a business, and being bold as business leaders, in communicating that any kind of cruel language or behaviour among staff – whether masked by banter or not – will not be condoned. 

If you are interested in exploring how group coaching can enable your team to be more collaborative and less competitive, get in touch to see how we can help. 


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