Competition and collaboration: the winning team

I used to fall into the “OHMYGAWDI’MSOBUSY” hair-on-fire insanity in my corporate job. The busier I was, the more important I felt.

So when I recently went to book an appointment a month out with a client, it was with mixed feelings that I somewhat sheepishly told her, “I’m fairly meeting-free that week.”

Why is being meeting-free something to be embarrassed about? Does that mean that I am not a productive member of the work world?

Americans are kind of obsessed with productivity. Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique?

Set a timer for 25 minutes, work on one thing with laser-sharp focus, and then take a 5-minute break. Repeat. My perfect time is 40 minutes of focus. I take 15 minutes in between sessions to go for a walk, check my email, get a snack (or maybe two snacks). Then do it again.

Can you be too productive?
While researching the most effective ways to increase my own productivity, I came across this TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan: Forget the pecking order at work.

She talks about a study by evolutionary biologist William Muir, who singled out the most productive chickens for breeding. These “super chickens” pecked each other to death. A byproduct of super productive chickens is that competition spilled over into every part of their lives, not just producing more eggs.

Ms. Heffernan connects this study to our obsession with productivity, “For the past 50 years we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the super chicken model. We’ve thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars – the brightest men or occasionally women in the room – and giving them all the resources and power…and the result has been aggression, dysfunction, and waste.”

I’ve worked in sales enablement for much of my career, supporting sales people.

Sales jobs are one of the most competitive, filled with contests, winners, and losers. The winners not only get paid more, when they make their quotas they’re rewarded with fancy trips to exotic locations with their co-workers and managers.

On the surface you’d think a better reward is time away from the people you work with, but it’s actually brilliant because this reward builds in connection with your peers and managers. In a highly competitive job, where sales people are striving to knock each other off the #1 position, a reward vacation with your peers refills an empty empathy tank with connection and collaboration, sharing best practices, motivations, and stories.

If the super chickens had gone on vacation to a luxury beachside resort with their peers, maybe they would still be alive today!

Competition and collaboration: the winning team

We’re better together!

Even the superstars, the high achievers, need support to succeed. If they don’t treat their support staff well, they won’t get support for long. Resentment creeps in and their support staff sabotages them or they have high turnover (which decreases productivity).

It takes two (or more) to get things over the finish line. Competitive sales people getting the deals done with collaborative team members getting the contracts signed, the statement of work produced, the money collected, the product delivered, and so on.

It’s the balance of competition and collaboration that wins.

We need to celebrate both.

In many companies they get everyone in the company in one room to reward the winners: the sales people who met quota. You’ve probably been there as a winner or a supporter…it’s AWKWARD. Let’s all clap and recognize the tops sales people as we gaze admiringly at the awesome vacation that they won, a vacation we’ll never have access to.

Only the competitors win.

And the leaders say, “Well, if you want to win you should become a sales person,” which completely ignores and belittles the team it took to get there.

Ms. Heffernan notes that the most successful teams had high degrees of social sensitivity to each other (aka empathy). They gave equal time to one another to talk and share ideas. And they had more women. She said, “What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks” that holds us together and gives us strength to work through the hard tasks.

This is an important study to validate empathy and emotional intelligence, and recognize the importance of competition to push things forward.

“So how does this play out in the real world? Well, it means that what happens between people really counts, because in groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow. People don’t get stuck. They don’t waste energy down dead ends,” said Ms. Heffernan.

You don’t have to do everything well to succeed, but you do need to surround yourself with people who complement you.

It’s one way that opposites naturally attract. You will often find a collaborative person married to a competitive one.

The hard part is respecting each strength and raising it to its exalted position in the moment when that strength is most needed. To recognize, “No, we don’t need to drive forward right now. We need to step back and look at this from a different perspective.” Or “No, the time for discussion has passed and it’s time to make a decision.”

Appreciating another person’s strengths
Working with a diverse team can be really hard. You don’t have the language shortcuts you get when you work with people like yourself. Gender, age, geography, education level, class, religion, sexuality all play a role in bringing diverse thinking to our work, but also make connectedness harder.

Here are three negotiation skills to help you build rapport:

  • What you think: Assess the other person’s style. People fall into general style categories that you can assess ahead of time or in the meeting:
    • Logic (methodical, needs time to process): Facts and figures, analytic, rational, measures pros and cons, inflexible. When talking to a logical person, focus on the facts without too much small talk.
    • Emotion (high emotional intelligence, aware of self and others): Focused on relationships, people focus, informal, empathetic, sentimental. When talking to an emotional person, make small talk and show an interest in her/him.
    • Ideas (likes to think big picture, hard to take action): Focused on concepts, big picture, imaginative, strategizer, may be a dreamer. When talking to an idea person, ask questions.
    • Action (get right to the point): Results focused, goal setting, winning, controlling, impulsive. When talking with an action person, get to the point and focus on outcomes.
  • What you say: Find something in common. Get curious. Ask that serious person a few questions about the project, the team, or the workplace and look for things to spark a conversation. You may never be best friends, but showing interest in the other person builds rapport.
  • What you do: Match your style to complement theirs. If you’re a fun loving jokester (ahem) and you’re meeting with a person who takes things seriously, you won’t build rapport by making jokes. Adjust your communication to theirs as soon as you figure out what it is…make one joke and if they don’t respond, then stop. This kind of “mirroring” is effective to build rapport. Matching tone, body language, and verbal language patterns help to build a connection. If you can assess the other person’s style, drive your conversation toward their style, not yours.

Get off the racetrack
You may find that competition drives you, and makes you happy and energized, which is awesome. The world needs you!

If you find that competition sucks the joy out of your very soul, know that there’s an important place for you, too. In fact, take some time to look more closely at the pairings of competitive and collaborative people in your world. Then you can appreciate the way you fit together so perfectly!

 

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