How Collaboration Can Be More Effective Than Competing to Be “Number One”

By endlessly chasing 'wins' over their peers, business leaders are setting themselves up for an impossible task - and missing a far healthier path to success.

Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympic medallist, International Diplomat, Cambridge University Business Coach and author of ‘The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed’. Here, she offers CEO Today her perspective on competition, ‘winning’ and whether they truly matter.

It’s all about being number one! Only winning counts! Smash your competitors! Those are the messages we receive throughout life from the classroom to the boardroom. It can seem that’s how the universe works: life’s a competition and the sooner you start focusing on how to compete, the more likely you are to succeed.

But it’s a fallacy, a misconception, and an increasingly damaging one. It’s time to challenge assumptions and myths prevalent in our organisations about what motivates us and helps us to thrive. Life is complex for leaders today: they have to balance challenges of social responsibilities and shareholder returns, employee engagement and community support. Businesses have to manage the impact of global issues, from public health to immigration to climate change. But that’s even more reason why simple competitive narratives and accompanying metrics focused on ‘being number one’ are wholly inadequate.

How has our obsession with a narrow concept of winning become so engrained? The original meaning of winning related to ‘effort and hard work’ – nothing about defeating others and wanting to be the best. The word ‘to compete’ comes from the Latin ‘competere’ meaning ‘to strive together’ – again, no mention of opponents and losers. But over centuries, winning became associated with military battles for power and wealth, a self-perpetuating history of strength and domination, victory and defeat. This narrative transferred easily across to the business world, epitomised by strong leaders from Jack Welch to Jack Ma to Elon Musk.

We often hear that we are ‘wired to win’, but that’s a half-truth at best. One part of our brains responds to the experience of ‘winning’, giving us a dopamine hit and leaving us wanting more albeit with diminishing returns. But we could choose to develop the part of our brains that responds to meaning and purpose, tapping into a stronger, longer-term source of motivation and more sustainable basis for performance.

The original meaning of winning related to ‘effort and hard work’ – nothing about defeating others and wanting to be the best.

We shouldn’t overlook the findings of anthropologists that it’s cooperation, rather than brain size, the use of tools or aggression, which defined the first humans (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker). There is no biological or psychological reason why we can’t collaborate on a much greater scale if we choose to. Business CEO and author Margaret Heffernan sums up how the last fifty years of Western culture has focused purely on competition to make us “bigger, tougher, meaner, more successful competitors”: “the entire culture has been caught up in a testosterone-fuelled feedback loop, we’ve been persuaded that if we aren’t top dog, we must be underdogs; if we aren’t winners, we’re losers. What’s striking in its absence is the equivalent effort to hone our collaborative gifts” (Margaret Heffernan, The Bigger Prize, Simon & Schuster, 2014, p.33).

What are the costs? In sport, we see multiple Olympic champions and other winners feeling empty and even depressed when they reach the pinnacle, their result devoid of longer-term meaning. Many others who don’t reach the podium are simply discarded along the way. Is this really what success looks like? In business, how many of the battles to be the best have turned sour? Some of the starkest examples include ‘serial winner’ Fred Goodwin who led RBS to the largest annual loss in British corporate history and Bernie Madoff who ran the biggest investment fraud the world has ever known. Enron, Volkswagen and now Wirecard are amongst those striving for more, to reach targets and outstrip competitors who have all fallen short over time. Looking across the organisational landscape, flatlining levels of productivity and declining staff engagement across sectors alongside record levels of burnout suggest that commonplace company narratives to ‘be the best’, ‘destroy the competition’ and ‘be number one’ in the marketplace are not working well (See a range of statistics quoted throughout Bruce Daisley, The Joy of Work, Penguin Random House, 2019).

There is no biological or psychological reason why we can’t collaborate on a much greater scale if we choose to.

‘The Long Win’ offers a different approach to success through the 3Cs of Clarity, Constant Learning and Connection. Success is based on Clarifying our broader purpose: the social impact and change that we want to see. The way we approach this is through a focus on Constant learning in order to grow, adapt and innovate, rather than focusing solely on results, and prioritizing Connection as the best way to create more value. Connection is the glue that interconnects the 3Cs of Long-Win thinking. If we don’t have connection as a team, then it’s hard to create Clarity about the why and the how. If we don’t connect with customers and colleagues then we won’t Constantly learn new things, anticipate emerging needs and prepare for the unknown, uncertain future. If we don’t develop Connections across our lives, then we lose the potential to achieve our purpose through effective cooperation and collaboration.

As an Olympic rower, my early days were dominated by obsessive competition. It was self-defeating, and by the time we came to race the rest of the world at the major championships, we were burnt out with a lot of human collateral damage along the way. A more collaborative high-performance culture later in my career enabled me to win medals when it mattered and focus the rest of the time on learning from fellow athletes, supporting and challenging each other. Despite competing for selection, it was in our shared interest for us all to maximise the gains we could make together.

When I worked as a diplomat, connections sat at the heart of our work as we sought to deep relationships and build alliances with partners with whom there seemed to be only unpassable barriers – cultural, linguistic, political. Whatever the intractable disputes and complex issues we were negotiating, the most powerful tool we had at our disposal was human relationships which allowed us the possibility of co-creating a new way forward in the darkest of conflict-affected situations.

Proactive collaboration requires a change of mindset, new priorities, different behaviours. Three key areas need particular attention:

  • exploring when employees make key decisions to compete rather than collaborate and reversing the structures and incentives that drive the former rather than the latter;
  • improving the quality of interactions, conversations and connections which are the glue of teamwork, resilience and adaptability, and ultimately underpin performance
  • recognising and rewarding behaviours which build trust, create inclusive environments and contribute to the communities we are all part of beyond the four walls of our (home/work) office.

It’s clear that the greatest problems that humanity faces – from climate change to global health to international trade and prosperity – require a collective response, an understanding of multiple perspectives and collaborative solutions. These are not finite issues, they can’t be ‘won’ or ‘beaten’ but require long-win thinking: a more meaningful sense of purpose, a focus on learning and collaboration, and the prioritisation of human connections above all.

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