When Competitive Cultures Run Amok

What companies lose when it’s all about winning

Competing and winning can be very satisfying and even just taking part is often a terrific experience. “Competition brings out the best in people,” or so the adage goes. But what if the culture of your workplace was all about competition? That everything you did was viewed through the lens of winners and losers. Where collaborating and building relationships wasn’t valued as highly as the take-no-prisoners and win-at-all-cost approach to achieving goals. Where “successful” individuals were recognised as heroes of the organisation, and unsuccessful staff were subordinate.

The False-Positives of a Competitive Culture

When I have a client whose company’s culture screams ‘COMPETE!’ and they look at me with true pride saying “yeah, isn’t it great – we have been so successful!”, I know it’s going to be a long mandate. This is because research tells us that leveraging a competitive framework to drive success has a limited shelf-life for most companies. What ultimately unravels the hitherto success story is the toll that an excessively competitive environment takes on its people. It’s often a long journey before a client can recognise the unhealthy and damaging effects of a competitive culture run amok.

Consequences of a Win-Lose Environment

Some leaders genuinely feel that encouraging fierce competition will bring out the best in their people; whilst others operate in industries where competitive constructs are the accepted way of doing business. We create a competitive culture when we reward wins over the pursuit of goals; when relationships are secondary to results. Companies operating at the extremes in this regard (e.g., highly competitive company cultures) often observe the following outcomes:

  • Employee disengagement: Members resign that they will ever be in the ‘winners’ circle’ and at some point, they are no longer motivated to try
  • Burn-out: Employees are trying too hard to participate in a race that isn’t something they’re invested in, or because their successes are never quite good enough
  • Flagging intrinsic motivation: Replaced by extrinsic motivational drivers – often money, leading to increased costs
  • Only one winner: People don’t build positive, authentic relationships with their peers for fear of needing to trample them at the proverbial finish line
  • Focus on failures rather than highlight opportunities to improve moving forward
  • Decline in collaboration and creativity, suggesting that innovation is stifled as employees guard their resources and knowledge
  • Ultimately, the decline of organisational quality. Critical information isn’t being shared as groups and individuals operate as competitors not team players

Collaboration as a Path to Success

Our family runs – all of us. Admittedly, our teenage children run twice as fast as we adults do, but much is due to their training with a tremendous cross-country (XC) squad at school. I thought XC running was a highly competitive individual sport. And while there are elements of one’s individual pursuit of excellence, it’s also about collaboration, shared goals and teamwork.

A XC squad is comprised of several runners and each runner’s finishing place counts for points towards the team’s total. The lower the total points, the better the squad places. So, encouraging your running buddies to fight for 27th place instead of 30th will boost the whole team’s performance.

cross country runner team

When a XC squad gets it right, the fastest runners set a challenging pace in training, which inspires the rest of the team to stretch themselves. The slower runners get coached by the speedy athletes through an exchange in which both parties grow. The grit and fortitude of the middle pack creates a sense of shared purpose, encouraging the naturally faster contenders to do their best. And in competition, runners who finish first circle back to the course to encourage their team mates to strive for that bit extra. I have even seen it go so far that one of our squad’s runners stopped his race to jog with another school’s competitor to ensure that kid was able to just finish after a fall.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
~Phil Jackson, author, coach, executive

The coach of our kid’s XC squad has built an incredible culture, and the leaders of the team (the school seniors, who change each year) emphatically embody these values of co-operation, participation and effort as exemplified by Coach Mullens. He doesn’t talk about the winners, he talks about the new personal bests and the shared experiences that bind the group. Winning is not the squad’s singular objective, although more often than not, they do win. Their success is a bi-product of a team culture inspired through collaboration and achievement. Sadly, organisations all too often forget this.

Coaching for Personal and Collective Growth

When you see a company or a group where the balance between sparring with each other to achieve challenging goals and mutual support are in sync, you see long-term viability for success. Encouraging leaders who are caught in a competitive trap to see the possibilities for personal growth and organisational success if they give up some of the extremes of competing is challenging but not impossible, and having coached and consulted on this exact “competitive vs collaborative” culture struggle quite often, I recommend the following strategies with confidence:

  • Make 27th place an achievement worthy of praise to give everyone something to celebrate. First over the line might not be the biggest achievement leading to the success of the group—it may well be the slowest member of the team whose contribution is most important
  • Build an environment where the diverse talents of members are qualities that are truly celebrated
  • Encourage authentic relationship building through shared experiences of successes, failures and daily interactions
  • Leverage the strengths of the experienced and talented by having them coach others to help lift the whole team; reward collective growth, not individual performance
  • Create shared objectives to generate momentum to move faster and with greater focus 

Future Leaders Will Demand Better

runner future leaderThe XC squad to which our children belong gives me hope for the future. The kids leaving this team will not be content to work in a company where good people fall by the wayside just because their efforts weren’t gold-medal worthy. They will have seen what can be achieved by being competitive but doing so in a way which brings out the best in everyone for the mutual success of not only the squad, but of the sport as a whole. They will know that in a competition there are always those who don’t win, and how we chose to treat those who come over the line later is completely within our control.

So, I ask you, are the winners in your midst team-players and valuable mentors, or has the company’s culture become one that puts the second-place holders off the team?


Creative credits: Inset photos; image copyright: L. Frauenlob, “XC runner 2016”

Perfection – a most unhelpful addiction


I confess to being a perfectionist in a state of constant rehabilitation. I love things done right. And I mean ‘my’ kind of right. The kind of right that is so insanely satisfying to me that the absence of it leaves me bereft. I think I had an inkling that this wasn’t healthy when people who were not in constant pursuit of this demanding level of excellence, succeeded anyway. What?! How could they? They weren’t up to my standards.

Perfection in Finance

Now, as I consult to the profession of finance which fed my expectations of perfection so keenly throughout my career – I see it unmistakably as an industry-wide addiction. One shared by many professions and is an epidemic.

Bankers are demanding. They have high expectations of themselves, in line with the standards which clients, shareholders, and regulators rightly demand. An industry with so much bad press can afford to be a little preoccupied with high standards, but setting unrealistically high performance goals and having zero tolerance for errors serves no one well and can spawn workplace cultures of complacency, fraud, and deception while demoralizing their best people.

Throughout the industry, mechanisms which entrench perfectionistic expectations are baked in. Audit functions comb businesses for errors and issue reports detailing the failings, whilst compliance officers are held personally liable for missteps on their watch. Boards and regulators demand flawless presentations of numbers and immaculate PowerPoint slides with ironclad rigor. And even the feedback systems distribute staff along a bell curve of performance, linking their placement – perfect or less than perfect – to their incentive outcomes.

Yes, it’s well and good to want to get the right data, or the right feedback on a person, or as few compliance mishaps as possible, but what has happened instead is people are afraid to make any mistakes at all. Faults are a sign of weakness – as the ‘Masters of the Universe’ would say – and they won’t be tolerated.

The dark side of Perfection

But what is lost when we set expectations for ourselves and others which are unrealistic? What is the fallout?

  • Firstly, we have assured some level of failure. Perfection is essentially unattainable so we are guaranteed to fall short to someone else, or to ourselves.
  • We are likely to have our priorities out of sync. Re-edit the PowerPoint deck for the 10th time or invest energy in thinking about what we don’t know on the topic. Time wasted on the minutiae won’t unlock new ideas, thoughts, and visions.
  • We lose the ability to delegate effectively because we sincerely don’t believe anyone else could do it to the standard that we/others expect. With that, relationships at work start to deteriorate as trust and co-mentoring wither.
  • Constantly being under pressure to be flawless leads to stress – real physical manifestations of something which we have imposed on ourselves or someone else has done so for us. Illness, burnout, and more imperfect days.

wisdom-92901_1280-300x225I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to find out how many of my clients had ‘high’ perfectionistic behavioural tendencies either as individuals or as a team/unit. It was more than 75% over the last 5 years. That’s a huge proportion and from what I experience in my contact with clients, it’s not abating. Candidly, in coaching my executive clients to improve their perfectionistic trait, I am able to share my experience and solutions while learning from theirs.

Humans are imperfect. And imperfection requires tolerance.

“Tolerance” does not mean a lack of standards or failure to impose consequences for failing to adhere to standards, suggests Robert Zafft, Of Counsel at the law firm, Greensfelder. Rather, he adds, “tolerance needs to be understood in an engineering sense, meaning an essential part of business processes and cultures dedicate and align with continuous improvement. As these processes and cultures improve – as they become more transparent and consistent – the degree of ‘tolerance’ will narrow.”

The real world is imperfect. Humans are imperfect. And imperfection requires tolerance.
-Robert Zafft

But what is better than Perfection?

The pressures to perform at exceptionally high levels are real and many, validly, are not able to be removed. But there are things which can counterbalance the drive for perfection and turn the energy in a positive direction.

  • Focusing on what is to be done not how it is to be done. Setting a goal which is aspirational; not necessarily fully formed or prescriptive, but a stretch task. In essence, focussing on the end-game rather than the exacting, over-engineered, over-prescriptive process to get there.
  • Communicating by listening first. Connecting with other people with genuine honesty and openness so that you are hearing their thoughts rather than punching out the expectations and demands first. Ultimately by hearing alternate views and experiences, the solution will end up being a better one rather than a perfect one.
  • Being aware of our own leadership impact on others through our words and actions. Sent back a four-paragraph document redlined to death for the third time? What are you missing? How is it you are not helping the other person, instead of wondering why are they so incompetent? Consider what your lessons might be from this exercise.

No rocket science here; it’s not revolutionary. But the impact can be meaningful. Keeping the perfectionistic inside on a tight leash will work wonders.

In an effort to take some of my own medicine, I dialed back my own perfectionistic tendencies in approaching this blog. No fifteen drafts, no agonising over word choices or punctuation – no spreadsheet to calculate the exact percentage referenced. Any errors I will try to own without self-recrimination – and I welcome comments wholeheartedly.

How are you coaching leaders and managers with a perfectionistic trait? Please share your comments and experience below.

Culture Diagnosis by Pulse or MRI?

Last month I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Annual Ultimate Culture Conference in San Francisco, hosted by Human Synergistics. One of many reasons for me to take the 12-hour flight from Switzerland was to be in the company of thought leaders in workplace culture, such as Dr. Edgar Schein. Among the many insights he shared, one in particular struck a chord with me: the different methods of surveying for culture data. Dr. Schein described two-dimensional (2D), 3D and 4D views one can take when trying to understand a company’s culture. My experience is similar, and it prompted me to draw out the following analogy. 

A check of my pulse might suggest that I am a decent athlete, as I have a relatively slow heart rate. But an MRI would tell you that I am an orthopaedic surgeon’s walking retirement plan.

Much like a pulse check, many companies regularly use employee engagement surveys to gauge the mood of their organisation and take the results as a strong indicator of their overall ‘health’. One recent comment from a client was, “There was an uplift of 0.3 points in overall staff engagement versus two years ago, so we are clearly getting something right.” Yes, that could be inferred, but what are they getting right, and why? And importantly, what else could they be doing?

Pulse Benefits

Employee engagement, or pulse, surveys are a welcome addition to the toolkit of HR and Communications.  They do many things well:

  • Quantify the general mood among staff
  • Chart the directionality of key engagement indicators (up/down/stable)
  • Offer a consistent benchmarking tool
  • Are widely accepted and understood

But like taking my pulse, the engagement survey results are missing fundamental information that is necessary to truly understand the outcomes. They don’t tell us anything about how it feels to work at the company. We haven’t gained a clear picture of the culture, just a lens on the mood.

Pulse = Effect. Culture = Cause.

Staff engagement is what we see as a result of the company’s culture. It is cause and effect. The culture is the cause, and the engagement is the effect.

If I were to collapse after disembarking from a flight, a medical professional with better skills than a first-aider would be quick to realise that a lower pulse rate might be unrelated to whatever the deeper issue is that has caused me to collapse. In the same way, a pulse survey doesn’t tell us what the underlying drivers of the engagement levels are, only the level of general engagement.

If a company actions the findings from their pulse survey without looking deeper below the surface, they risk pulling on the wrong levers in their efforts to increase engagement.

What the company learned…

Clients often tell me about the results of their most recent employee engagement survey over the course of our first meetings. Back to the magic 0.3 uplift…

Employee Jo is answering the survey for the third time in five years:

  • Are you satisfied with your level of incentives?
    (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is unsatisfied, and 5 is completely satisfied)
    Jo thinks: Yes, I am paid well and there are good pension and health benefits, so “4”…because I could always do with a bit more to compensate for the ‘drop everything and answer my email’ attitude of the boss.

What the company DIDN’T learn…
What has the company actually learned with this? And more importantly, what haven’t they been able to learn?

  • People think they are paid quite well (“4”), which means they must be happy, right?
    But Jo isn’t really satisfied; s/he takes the pay as compensation for the things that s/he misses out on. What Jo hasn’t been able to convey to the company is if s/he was heard more, or thanked more, the current pay would feel like a “5”.

Fundamentally, what we would want to know is, ‘Why does the employee feel that way?’

Measure the Culture

Fortunately, we can quantify and explain the culture and show a causal link to the outcomes (such as engagement), as well as uncover what is driving these outcomes. Using Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) in place of the engagement surveys, I work with my clients to present the full picture—the MRI, as it were.

With the OCI® and OEI results, we would be able to see that Jo (and others) thought the following regarding incentives:

+ the appraisals are fair (to an average level)
+ you get a bigger bonus for doing your job well (more than average)
–  I can’t see how well I am doing in my job unless someone tells me (and usually they don’t)
–  you will be given a less desirable task to do if you make a mistake (more than average)
–  the goals I have to work towards are not jointly set by the boss and I1

We would also learn that the unwritten behavioural rules Jo (and others) feel are:

  • Compete more than cooperate
  • Avoid all mistakes and work long hours more than pursue self-set goals
  • Gain status and influence by being critical more than helping others grow2

And finally, that the outcome of all of this is:

  • Motivation and Satisfaction are just below average, but Intention To Stay is high, as is—unfortunately—Stress
  • The cooperation within the team is constructive, but outside the unit, it’s not good

Before you operate…

We have a much clearer picture of what Jo wanted to tell us. We have looked beyond the question of “is the heart beating?” and have run a full set of diagnostics.

So if pulse surveys do some things well, what does an OCI/OEI survey do better?

  • Quantify the general mood among staff and explain why they feel that way by analysing in detail 33 causal factors that lead to the way the company feels
  • Chart the directionality of key engagement indicators (up/down/stable) and quantify the behaviours (Constructive and Defensive) that are creating the culture
  • Offer a consistent benchmarking tool and benchmark results to an internationally normed, statistically meaningful dataset that recognises what a Constructive best-in-class outcome would look like, and what an Average would be
  • Are widely accepted and understood as the OCI is the most widely used culture measurement tool globally

Clearly, the MRI scan results are in. Right-o, I’m off to have coffee with Jo and see how things are.

In the meantime, what diagnostics do you use or request in order to see the full picture of your organisation’s well-being? I invite your sharing via the social media options below.


 Cooke, Robert A. (1995). Organizational Effectiveness Inventory. Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics.
2  Cooke, Robert A. and Lafferty, J. Clayton (1986). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics.

The People versus the Power

Recently, I had the privilege to lead a session with a management team where they wanted to explore their interaction style as a leadership committee. This was a global, culturally diverse, senior team—leading over 4,000 staff between them, performing critical daily tasks for the organisation, and defining the future strategy of their division with implications for the company at large.

Leaders and managers set the context within which organisational members strive for excellence and work together to achieve organisational goals. Leadership helps shape culture. Culture in turn shapes leadership. They both drive performance.

With a new operating model being defined, creating awareness of their individual and collective behaviours and the impact of these behaviours was seen as a critical foundation for building a stronger future. By their own assessment, how constructively they would be able to work together and model these behaviours would be a key determinant of the culture of their organization and the success of their operations.

Going into the session, all members of the management team had received personal feedback on their thinking and behaviour styles using Human Synergistics’ Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI 1 for Self Descriptions and LSI 2 for Descriptions by Others).1 They were primed to recall their individual development areas and strengths, and bring that awareness to the table for the exercise that followed.

Planning the groups

To challenge the team members to think about how they interact with each other, I deployed the Bushfire Survival Situation™ exercise, which called on them to work together to seek the best outcome for the group in a life-threatening situation. The 11 managers were split into two groups—but not just by any random grouping. I purposefully formed the groups based on their LSI 2 (the 360° feedback component) dominance in either the Task orientation or the People side of the Circumplex, which provides a way to “see,” measure, and change the thinking and behavioural styles proven to impact the performance of not only individuals, but also groups and organizations. [For an interactive explanation of the Circumplex, click here.]

Circ.-3-clusters-grad-outLet me call the ‘Task’ group, consisting of six people, K2. In addition to having a clear bias toward the Task hemisphere of the Circumplex in both LSI 1 and LSI 2, the group’s average score for all Constructive behaviours (which reflect a satisfaction-oriented and balanced concern for People and Tasks) combined was at the historical median (when aggregating all four Constructive style scores for all six team members for both LSI 1 and LSI 2).

On the challenging side, though, K2 generally overestimated their Affiliative behaviours (which they viewed as about average) relative to how others perceived their interactions (noticeably weaker). As part of the LSI Constructive culture styles, Affiliative behaviours reflect an interest in developing and sustaining pleasant relationships and making people feel part of things. In contrast, the Aggressive/Defensive cluster, which emphasizes Tasks over People in self-promoting ways (where the focus is on one’s own needs at the expense of the groups’) in the LSI 2 data for this group was much stronger. Half the team members had what could be considered extreme Power scores—higher than 90 percent of the people in the norming data set—in their LSI 1 reports. You might call this the archetypal ‘Alpha’ group, with a lot of strong personalities and subject-matter ‘experts.’

The second team, Eiger, had five members, and was made up of the more People-oriented managers. In contrast to K2 members, those on the Eiger team had underestimated how Affiliative they were relative to the descriptions by others. Also, in general, they didn’t see themselves as being as Constructive as others saw them. Interestingly, however, this team had, in aggregate, scores higher than the historical median for the Dependent style (the need for self-protection coupled with the belief that one has little direct or personal control over important events) and the Approval style (need to be accepted and tendency to tie one’s self-worth to being liked by others). These styles are part of the Passive/Defensive cluster, which reflects an unduly strong orientation towards people over task fueled by reinforcing individual needs for security. Along with their strength in the more Constructive Affiliative and Humanistic styles, these tendencies reflect the Eiger team’s stronger People orientation. This was potentially the Beta group, despite having the boss in it as a team member; they had a tendency to want to be conciliatory with one another and ‘play nice.’

Time to get busy

Individually, everyone read through the scenario—a bushfire was approaching and there were certain things available that could help—and made a personal assessment, based on a list of 12 items, of what they felt would be most and least important for their survival. The groups then formed and were asked to come up with a team ranking within a 45-minute window. Observers were present on the periphery of each group, listening and watching for the language and behaviours employed.

K2 got straight into it, and there was a lot of noise suggesting intense discussion. The language used was forceful and direct; the mood jovial and boisterous. Talking over each other and repeating the same points, even after someone had offered an alternate idea, was not uncommon.

No one had firsthand knowledge of a bushfire situation, but one person had been in the army and had a sense that certain things were not as straightforward as the others were suggesting. Conscious that they needed to get real learnings out the exercise, I issued an emergency newsflash to K2 informing them that the fire was now ‘unpredictable and catastrophic,’ implying that they might want to reconsider their priorities.

Eiger, by comparison, was relatively quiet and subdued, seemingly a little uncertain as to how to start. There wasn’t a ruckus and lots of listening and contemplating were obvious as time progressed.

Laughing and smiling, they were calm and measured in their interactions. Eiger team members were genuinely interested in what each other had to say, and whilst they weren’t immediately sure on the ‘right’ prioritisation of survival items, they were open to being influenced away from their personal preferences.

Predictable like a book

From psychology teachings,2 we know that it’s common practice for each of us to believe that we are in possession of more or better information than the person next to us, and that our judgement is likely to have more value than theirs. We believe that our opinions are the true and accurate perception of the situation, and that makes it hard for us to shift to a different stance. Our challenge as rational, intelligent managers is to suppress that urge—especially in the instances where we are clearly not the ‘expert in the room.’

After the allotted 45 minutes, we reconvened and pulled out the calculators. With the expert’s ranking of the importance of items shared, we were able to tally the quality of both the individual and team rankings. In an ideal world, you would want the individual knowledge and experience of the team members to come together and amount to something more than what one person could achieve alone. You hope that by combining your skills, a superior solution is reached.

In these unceasingly challenging times for business, survival is a real, not imagined, imperative.

More often than not, however, our behaviours interfere and we act in ways which, although seemingly ‘not a big deal’ or dismissed as being ‘just the way I roll,’ have a significant detrimental effect on the outcome. Imagine you are in a real survival situation; imagine that your life and that of those with you depend on how you are able to interact with one another. In these unceasingly challenging times for business, survival is a real, not imagined, imperative.

So back to K2 and Eiger…

The team of five that was Eiger successfully improved their chances of survival as a group by outperforming their best individual score by over 40%. They had been able to really listen to each other and then use that shared knowledge constructively to move things materially forward to a better solution. They were focused on the end goal, and through their Affiliative behaviours (which were not offset by aggressive Power tendencies), they ensured their success.

On the other side of the room, K2 managed as a team to underperform its best two team members by a few percentage points—an astonishingly appalling feat for half of a management committee with the future of its department under its stewardship. As a team, they managed to destroy value; their interactions produced a worse outcome than the best third of the group. They were patently unable to listen constructively to one another.

As the guffaws and teasing around the tables died down, there was a palpable moment of contemplation from all of the senior leaders. What kind of impact were these leaders having on their teams and the organisation’s culture as a whole?

I asked them if it was clear what had happened. One of the participants from K2 said, without missing a beat:

“It’s obvious. Eiger was able to really hear and appreciate each other whilst we just wanted to pound the table until everyone had bent to our will, which was never going to happen as we were all expecting the same thing!”

Lessons? So many, and so clear…

  1. Our behaviours impact others—if we beat the table to get attention, then why should we expect others to do differently?
  2. Brute force—or more specifically, Power—doesn’t usually win the day.
  3. Listening is a skill, not just something that happens when you can’t think of anything to say.
  4. Being ‘nice’ and having an interest in people doesn’t equate to ‘being a pushover’ or not focused on real business outcomes. You need to have an understanding of both the hard (Task) and soft (People) skills.
  5. And the big one: “I thought I knew better than the others. Plain and simple! But I didn’t. And I should never assume that I do.”

The People people, team Eiger, were better able to communicate for survival in this instance. And everyone learned a lot about the risks of radiant heat that day … something that the guy in the army already knew, but couldn’t get anyone in his team to listen.

What do you think of these insights? What team approach have you effectively utilized that is focused on both behaviour and outcome?

I welcome your thoughts and comments on LinkedIn and Twitter

Editor’s Note:

Google’s Project Aristotle rediscovers and reinforces the importance of “psychological safety:”  “Can members of teams take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.” Decades of research with our Circumplex-based research confirms that it is Constructive norms and behaviors—like setting goals, clarifying plans and roles, and developing one another—that reduce self-protective behaviors and promote teamwork, synergy, and innovation. Furthermore, our research demonstrates that Aggressive/Defensive styles—such as oppositional and competitive—seemingly look good but actually detract from both psychological safety and the type of work environment found by Google’s researchers to lead to effectiveness. 


1 Laffety, J. C. (1973). Life Styles Inventory™. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

2 Hoorens, Vera. (1993). “Self-enhancement and Superiority Biases in Social Comparison,” European Review of Social Psychology, Volume 4, Issue 1, 1993, pp. 113-139. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14792779343000040