Competition and Collaboration: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Written by: Jillian Miles

A former student of mine recently left a job that seemed challenging and exciting to return to a job that she knew to be Collaborative and Supportive. What was originally presented to her as challenging and exciting was better coined Competitive and Vigorous, and she found herself disengaged and unhappy in that environment. This got me thinking: are competition and collaboration mutually exclusive in the workplace?

Let’s first acknowledge that we see competition at work in different ways. For example, we can have competition that is interteam, intrateam, or interorganizational. In a retail chain, interteam competition can play out like Store A versus Store B, each striving to be the “better” location. If the retail chain offers commission for every sale an employee makes, we see intrateam competition where every employee competes to get the sale and thus the commission. If there are two retail chains who are direct competitors, we see employees at both feel interorganizational competition and work to outperform the other chain. 

Likewise, we see different types of collaboration at work. Interteam collaboration might look like Sales and Production working together to determine the best sales strategy to keep production optimized and not overstretched. We see intrateam collaboration as R&D employees working together to brainstorm and develop new products. Joint ventures are by definition interorganizational collaboration. 

Now for the big question: are competition and collaboration mutually exclusive at work?

Joseph Harrison, writer for Foundr, would say no. Harrison is a proponent of something called competitive collaboration. He says, “Competitive collaboration can help you boost profits, improve brand awareness, attract your target audience, and much more.” He goes on to describe the successes of major companies that strategically use interorganizational competition and collaboration simultaneously. 

There are wildly successful organizations with combinations of competition and collaboration built into their organizational structures and processes. Going back to our retail example, Store A and Store B might have interteam competition, and if commission is based on store performance instead of individual performance, we might see intrateam collaboration inside each store as employees work together to reach store goals. 

My former student enjoys competition, but she values collaboration more. She didn’t know it, but she was looking for opportunities for competitive collaboration. She wanted to work with a team to achieve common goals in a competitive industry. Now that she has found both job and organization fit, she is a highly productive, engaged employee.

What combination of competition and collaboration is right for you?  

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