I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. “Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……