Whatever Happened to Good Ol’ Competition?

Andy Porter Andy Porter, Driving Productivity, Engagement and Satisfaction, Influence, Leadership, Organizational Development, Sports

As the “HR/OD Guy” for my organization, I’m frequently asked by team leaders how to improve collaboration.  Collaboration within teams, collaboration across teams, collaboration externally, and musical collaborations (okay… I made that last one up).  And as a trained OD guy, I used to love this question.  Time for a team collaboration offsite!  But I realized something after another MBTI driven, “let’s understand our differences and work better together” offsite that this approach is all wrong.   I don’t want employees to collaborate all the time.  I want employees to compete with each other – a duel, mano y mano style.  And you know what else?  I actually don’t care at all if they like each other or get along.  I only care that the performance of the team improves.

And yes. I get some interesting reactions when I make this suggestion. Truth be told, I’m all for collaboration and my own organization is built on the idea of cross team collaboration.  But here’s my question to you HR pros out there – Does the absence of competition really make us better performers?

To answer this question I went back to my youth growing up in Boston in the 1980s during the era of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry. Take a look at this interview with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (email subscribers, click through to view the clip…).

Competition and even a healthy dislike for each other motivated both Bird and Johnson to practice and get better. And not only did they get better individually (three straight MVPs for Bird and three MVPs for Johnson), but their teams were successful as well (three NBA championships for the Celtics and five NBA championships for Lakers).  If I’m a coach or a team leader, this would seem to be a pretty good result.  So, now, when my team leaders come to me and ask me how to improve collaboration, I imagine myself in my 1980s style, very short basketball shorts and tell them 4 things:

  1. Make the comparison.  Find out who your employees compare themselves to (we all have someone) and highlight that person’s accomplishments.  Challenge them to do better.
  2. Toughen your team up.  Encourage heated discussion and debate around new and unconventional ideas – don’t rush to a consensus resolution.  This might feel uncomfortable at times but will improve individual and team performance over time.
  3. Make an investment.  Send your employees out to seminars, conferences and courses where they can measure themselves against the best and the brightest.  Ask them to report back on who they met and who was better than them. Ask what they plan to do to up their game.
  4. Walk the talk.  Hire people who could have your job and will challenge and compete with you.  This will show your team you mean business and aren’t afraid of a healthy dose of competition yourself.

Now let the results flow!  And who knows, maybe one of your teams will have an HBO documentary done about them someday too!