Competition vs. Cooperation in the Workplace

Is there a relationship between competition and conflict? An enduring but false myth considers internal competition a good thing. After all, competition motivates people to work hard for a goal and creates incentives for people to produce more, faster, and better, doesn’t it? Consider the following scenario.

The sales manager thought the contest would be a good way to promote productivity in the sales department. In the first month, all of the sales people worked hard. The difference between the winner, Ms. Jones, and the rest of the sales people was small. 

Ms. Jones received a $1,000.00 bonus, and the losers received nothing but their usual compensation. 

The contest continued in the second month and the same result occurred. Ms. Jones received another thousand dollars while the other sales people received nothing. 

In month three, morale deteriorated. By the end, Ms. Jones was not well liked by her peers, and several good people left the firm.

Most managers do not consider how competition looks from the trenches. For Ms. Jones, to win meant that other people had to lose. Ms. Jones’ self-interest was to do the minimum necessary to cooperate with her colleagues. If truly driven, Ms. Jones might subtly hinder the efforts of the other salespeople. Worse, she might take away the other sales people’s opportunities. Finally, successive wins might begin to make Ms. Jones feel superior to her colleagues.

How does competition look from the losers’ perspective?  Ms. Smith worked as hard and produced nearly as much, but because of bad luck, received nothing for her extra effort.  She asked herself, “Why should I work harder when I can’t be assured of compensation for my efforts?” Ms. Smith began to resent Ms. Jones, hate the competitive pressure of the job, and believe that because she could not win, she must not be a good sales person.  Despite the fact that she was one of the firm’s best employees, Ms. Smith left within a month after the sales contest ended.

In considering this company’s situation, think about how many winners and how many losers were created by the contest. Obviously, only one employee was a winner; the rest were losers. How do we react to losers? Even though they were good, hard working, high producing employees, they still were not the winner—they just weren’t as good. Because they were losers, they became resentful of the winner and of the environment that put them into a competitive, conflictual situation. Thus, the contest, designed to increase productivity, had the opposite long-term effect.

Does competition promote higher productivity? Not in the long run. When employees compete against each other rather than work cooperatively, they must look out for their own interests. The employer’s interest is the least of a competitive employee’s concern.  Looking out for number one means just that. Furthermore, the game is to win, not to produce. Competition generally does not promote excellence because trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different things. One can only attend either to the task at hand or to the enterprise of climbing over someone else.

Additionally, in a competitive environment, promoting creative ideas and processes that could dramatically increase everyone’s productivity is not worth the risk of individual loss.  More likely, a creative idea will be hoarded for its competitive advantage. Working with others and helping newcomers develop their potential is out of the question.

Do we perform better when we are trying to beat others than when we are working with them or alone? Superior performance does not require competition; in fact, it usually seems to require the absence of competition. Alfie Kohn, a social psychologist writing on the subject of competition and rewards, noted that in 65 studies cooperation promoted higher achievement than competition. Eight found the reverse, and 36 found no statistically significant difference. In 180 studies of cooperation, cooperation promoted higher achievement than independent work, while six found the reverse, and 42 found no difference. The superiority of cooperation held for all subject areas and all age groups. The evidence is clear: competition is associated with lower performance in the workplace.

The implications of competition for peacemaking should be clear. To prevent conflict in the workplace, consider carefully how competition, both overt and covert, might be minimized. Avoid competition and promote cooperation. Conflict management requires prevention of unnecessary competition between valued employees. Instead, instilling cooperative values and incentives will increase long-term productivity, enhance morale, and lead to a positive, happy workplace.

Douglas E. Noll, Lawyer to Peacemaker

Creator of Negotiation Mastery for the Legal Pro

California Lawyer Magazine, California Attorney of the Year 2012

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