In a Hybrid World, Should You Collaborate or Compete?


In a hybrid work environment, it can sometimes feel like we’re all running different races. One team may be in sync and finishing each other’s sentences over Slack or Skype, while another department feels a strain of competition because their manager’s natural instinct is to get employees to compete when she can’t see them toiling away. And even when you feel like part of a team, at the end of the day, you’re often on the track by yourself  — making it much harder to collaborate meaningfully. But since teamwork achieved through collaboration leads to greater innovation, higher engagement, and increased levels of empathy, the extra work is well worth it.

Your Brain in Competition Mode

When we engage in competition, our brains release a hit of dopamine that feeds our reward system. Competing, and imagining winning, causes our brain to react positively, encouraging us to continue to engage in that same behavior. That’s one of the reasons why many of us enjoy competition and how it can lead to a temporary boost in performance.

However, the research on the relationship between competition and performance is mixed, with evidence that the costs and benefits of competition differ between individuals. Also, a meta-analysis of organizational scandals implicates competition as a key factor resulting in employees behaving unethically. Studies show this is because intense competitive pressure causes us to lose sight of the moral implications of our decisions. Put another way, if we’re seeing the world through a competitive lens, we’re less likely to see it through a moral one.

Fortunately, competition isn’t the only thing that lights up the reward centers of the brain. In fact, while there are rewarding aspects of competition, collaboration is more rewarding because of the positive social feedback that comes from collaborating with partners, which is linked to orbitofrontal cortex activity, an area of the brain associated with motivation, goal-directed behavior, and reward. Teamwork and collaboration acknowledge and lean into our strong desires for social connections, creating a similar positive neuro response.

Collaboration Leads to Better Performance

The benefits of collaboration far outweigh the downsides, and while competition can send a quick surge to performance, collaboration sustains it. Forbes summarized a set of research findings stating that organizations promoting collaboration among employees were five times more likely to be high performers. Moreover, organizations noticed that team members who worked collaboratively worked on a task 64% longer than peers working alone; they also reported higher engagement, lower fatigue, and higher success rates, according to a recent Stanford Study. In short, collaboration produces better results.

Of course, knowing that collaboration is a stronger determinant of success than competition is one thing, but promoting it can be another. Creating a culture of collaboration can be at odds with individual desires to be recognized, rewarded, and promoted. For example, some people may view collaborating with others as negatively impacting the amount of recognition they receive as an individual. Similarly, many organizations base compensation on individual performance and accomplishments, and collaboration may remind us of the group projects we did in college — when our grade was based in part on someone else’s work, taking the control out of our hands and potentially creating a certainty or fairness threat if everyone didn’t pull their own weight.

Knowing this, a few ways to promote collaboration amid personal desire for recognition and competition include:

Connecting individual performance to organizational goals.

Successful organizations often have a few traits in common. One of those is that all team members understand what the organization is trying to accomplish — an aspiration sometimes known as “enterprise thinking.” Employees make a point to know the mission and goals of both other teams and the organization as a whole and, therefore, can structure their work accordingly. Understanding how your individual performance helps or hurts the larger organization makes it more likely that you will want to do your part and collaborate with everyone to accomplish the larger goal.

Creating work teams structured around product flow instead of title or department.

Common goals breed collaboration. If a team of people is working toward the same result, each individual will be more likely to understand they need to work together and support each other. Structuring work teams that support the same product or are dependent on each other for success helps to create natural collaborative teams. For example, instead of having a meeting with the entire marketing team to discuss all marketing-related projects, have a meeting with the team for your latest product. The individuals responsible for the design, production, sales, marketing, and servicing of that product can talk and address all questions and concerns in real time.

Providing each team member with certainty around what’s expected of them.

If a person doesn’t know what is expected of them, they tend to feel they must focus on everything, which often leads to stepping on the toes of co-workers (and making everyone feel like it’s a competition). Providing certainty around what each person needs to prioritize will help them stay in their work lane instead of competing with team members.

To be sure, competition can be a great way to see a short-term boost in performance. Short-lived sales contests, weeklong design competitions, and one meeting where the best idea wins lunch can all create excitement and buzz. But if the goal is long-term innovation and ongoing growth and success, collaboration is more likely to get you there. When everyone knows their role, is working toward the same goal, and has the respect and support of their teammates, you’re more likely to come out on top or at least maximize your chance of winning.

Author: Christy Pruitt-Haynes

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