Most of us have grown up in a competitive society. We compete with our siblings for the attention of our parents. We compete with other kids in sports. We compete with fellow students for the best grades to get into the best universities and later to get the best jobs. This sense of competition then carries over into our work life, where we try to outperform our colleagues so that we can get bigger bonuses, faster promotions, and more opportunities.
But what if beating the competition was no longer the most significant key to success? How could we turn off our competitive nature, or use it only at the right times? And how would we know that we are on the right track if we couldn't define ourselves largely in terms of being better than others?
In today's context, these questions are actually more practical than philosophical. The world has become so interconnected that many of our traditional notions of what it takes to "win" no longer apply. Take, for example, the debate over economic competition between China and the U.S. In reality, each country needs the other to succeed in order to thrive -- to finance growth, secure export markets, train talent, transfer technology, and more. Sure there are major differences in values and governance -- and thus a true competition of ideology and influence. But at the economic level, competition is much more nuanced and even muted.
The same can be said in many industries where "competitors" are also partners. For example, pharmaceutical firms license compounds to each other and co-promote products in different markets. Financial services companies co-manage loans and share risks. Competitors in the auto, computer, and apparel industries frequently rely on the same suppliers and distributors, and to keep them healthy need to make sure that the overall industry does well. These same competitors also lobby together to drive a favorable regulatory and political environment. Again, this doesn't mean that competition is dead -- especially in the realms of acquiring investors and customers -- but it's no longer the only means to success.
Notably, you'll find the most significant erosion of competition within companies. As organizations have become more global and more reliant on cross-functional processes, teamwork and collaboration are increasingly becoming the currency of success. Organizations can't operate effectively unless people share information, work together to solve problems, and help each other get the job done. So instead of competing with colleagues in other functions, more often than not we need to be cheering them on, supporting them, and actively helping them to flourish professionally.
Even with this added understanding, cooling down the competitive engine is difficult for most. So much of our upbringing drives competition that it's hard to unlearn those instincts. Not long ago I worked with a manufacturing firm where the salespeople were at odds with the finance, legal, and order-processing functions because they were stopping or slowing down "our deals." Conversely, the operational functions thought that the salespeople were out of control because they wouldn't follow "our procedures." The dysfunction was created because both sides were competing for control instead of helping each other succeed.
If you're in a situation where competition is getting in the way of success, here are two strategies that might help:
Trade places with your competition. You can do this on a very temporary basis just by shadowing them for a day or two. You could work in the other area on a temporary project, or even institute an official job rotation. The point is that the more you understand the view from the "other side," the less inclined you'll be to compete. Vanguard for example, intentionally rotates managers between functions as a way of reducing internal competition. As a Vanguard senior manager said to me, "If you've been in other areas and know you'll be taking on other jobs, you won't move problems downstream; you'll just solve them."
Facilitate discussion between competitors. The second strategy is to bring seemingly competitive groups together to talk about the dynamics and intentionally develop steps to make both parties more successful. In one large manufacturing firm, factory managers felt that many of the data requests from headquarters were a waste of time; while headquarters functions thought that managers in the field didn't provide accurate data on a timely basis. When plant and functional managers spent a couple of days together, they were able to identify a dozen reports that could be eliminated or streamlined while also constructing service level agreements for how and when to provide data.
For most of us competition is instinctual, and in many cases we've been conditioned to make it our default path to success. Yet, as the world becomes more complex, learning how not to compete could become the key to winning.
What's your experience with learning how not to compete?
Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online