Competition vs Collaboration

– “Can we all get along?” Rodney King III

Is your performance management system identifying your organization’s best leaders or it’s best doers? Are they being rewarded for their individual performance, or are they being recognized for how successful they’re making their team?

Do they get ahead by being competitive and striving to be the best, or do you value and promote those who collaborate and strive to make the company its best?

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Late in my military career, I was blessed to command a fantastic group of diverse, talented and motivated Airmen. The only part that wasn’t awesome was that we lacked sufficient personnel and resources to be fully capable of executing our assigned missions. Often, we found ourselves in a situation which pitted me against my peers in a competition for more – more people, more money, more equipment, and more priority.

I initially thought it was the perfect job for me, because I’d spent most of my career competing for more.

Unfortunately (for me), my boss cared more about getting along and expected me to play well with others. After a little attitude adjustment, I found that collaborating with the other leaders – cross-training and developing people, and sharing the recognition accolades when their folks were involved – made us all more effective and successful.

Collectively, our teams’ successes made the entire organization more mission capable and successful.

Why did I feel it necessary to be so competitive? Because I was developed under a performance management system that encouraged individuals to be the best of the best, not collaborative and supportive. After all, we only want the best to be the leaders of our military forces, right?

And you probably want the best in your company to lead your employees. Who doesn’t?

But, when a rewards system keeps people focused on what they do and not why they do it, they become more competitive than collaborative. They put a priority on individual accomplishments and technical competence and miss out on the people skills development that comes from succeeding – or failing – as part of a team. Ultimately, the business suffers when decisions are made without considering what’s best for the organization as a whole.

It gets worse when you promote the best doer to be an unprepared manager, but that’s a subject for a different day.

I’ve read a lot of management job descriptions with sentences that start “Leads this…” and “Leads that…” However, I have yet to see a single performance review process that actually grades people on their leadership. Not that those systems don’t exist; I just haven’t seen one in practice.

Instead, we give managers credit for what their teams accomplish without helping them understand how their accomplishments contribute to the success of their department, the company, and the clients. In my example above, I was focused on how successful we could be instead of how successful WE (get it, the royal WE?) could be.

When you unwittingly pit employees against each other – especially at executive levels – you end up with people who spend their time jockeying for position, competing for resources, and vying for attention and recognition.

They end up focused on themselves, not the organization and certainly not the people they’re charged to lead. Too many senior leadership “teams” pretend to get along, while everyone below them on the food chain knows it’s just contrived collegiality. They talk a good game, but what they’re really playing is “what’s in it for me,” and their people and the company are suffering for it.

What does your performance review process encourage? Is it about their contribution to the larger effort?

Can they tell that their performance is judged by how successful they’ve made others, or are they too concerned about how they’re doing compared to others?

Don’t wait for HR to change the system. Have the conversations now that set different expectations for 2018! Make it the Year of Collaboration and Success.

Or not.

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.