Why do leaders accept the largely avoidable costs of disagreement, turf issues, silos, politics, competition, cliques, hostility, and other forms of organizational disunity?
Below-the-line beliefs about human nature play a role. But equally influential are related beliefs about the role of contest and competition in society.
Competition is almost universally seen (in Western societies, at least) as a powerful source of motivation. It is presented as a uniquely effective way of bringing out the best in individuals and optimizing the performance of groups.
So fully have such beliefs permeated our consiousness that most of us have little awareness of the faith we implicitly invest in the idea of opposition as a way to attain shared goals.
Yet many studies have suggested that, contrary to popular belief, in virtually no area of endeavor does competition lead to improved performance or production.
Moreover competition, by its very nature, is antithetical to collective aims and initiatives. Author Alfie Kohn, for example, writes:
Strip away all the claims in [competition’s] behalf that we accept and repeat reflexively. What you have left is the essence of the concept: mutually exclusive goal attainment. One person succeeds only if another does not. From this uncluttered perspective, it seems clear right away that something is drastically wrong with such an arrangement. …Competition by its very nature damages relationships. Its nature, remember, is mutually exclusive goal attainment, which means that competitors’ interests are inherently opposed. I succeed if you fail, and vice versa. …so the failure of others is devoutly to be wished.
Placing employees, departments, or other organizational subdivisions in competition with each other implicitly frames them as competitors, each of whom is inherently opposed the others’ success. To succeed, each must beat, conquer, or otherwise prevail over those with whom it is in competition.
Put plainly, leaders who subscribe this paradigm create an environment in which in one part of the organization actively desires, or even works toward, the failure of other parts of that same organization.
The question facing leaders, then, is whether this is truly the best way to harness the talents, energies, and human capacity latent in an organization? Or might there be approaches more suited to the attainment of shared organizational goals and objectives?