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”

About the Author

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Louisa Robb

Après 20 ans en tant que directeur financier international dans des postes expérimentés, y compris en tant que Président directeur général, DRH et Directeur de la Stratégie, Louisa a créé le cabinet de conseil spécialisé Lucella AG, basé en Suisse. L'ambition de Louisa est d'apporter une voix claire sur le sujet de la culture d’entreprise, et l'aventure individuelle d'un leader, en tirant parti des compétences qu'elle a affinées au long de sa carrière dans la finance et à travers le déploiement de l'outil de mesure de la culture d'organisation (OCI) et des outils individuels d'évaluation de Human Synergistics.