United We Stand: Team Competition and Cooperation

United We Stand: Team Competition and Cooperation

Richard Milecki

“I want the people in my company to see the common goal; that we are all working towards the same goal. Instead there is in-fighting, territorialism and holding back of information.”

This is a familiar complaint of senior managers who from the corner office see the big picture and cannot understand why the rest of the company does not see it as well, act accordingly and subjugate personal or team agendas for the “obvious” common good.

Mostly, people today are familiar with and can quote the “common good”. It is written down in mission statements, is presented in quarterly staff “updates” and pronounced proudly on the company website. So what makes internal competition so common, is it really that bad and can anything really be done to abate it?

Humans are both competitive and social animals. We like to associate with groups and mostly prefer to live in communities. We applaud mutual assistance and value people taking responsibility for other’s success and well-being.  On the other hand, society reveres winners and we love the adrenalin rush of competing and winning. So how should managers design their organizations in order to take into account these seemingly opposite states of being, both of which are big motivators?

Having watched countless teams and organizations play out their roles and preferences in the cooperation-competition game, here are some observations and thoughts:

Competition is here to stay. No matter how much company value statements celebrate cooperation, teams and individuals want to experience success and winning and will display behaviors of territorialism and team pride. Organizations need to ask themselves to what extent the prevailing competitive behavior is detrimental to others or the common organizational goals.

Managers have an important role to play. If managers communicate well with each other whilst dealing with and solving inter departmental conflicts, then the teams will get the cooperation message. If team leaders are at constant loggerheads or worse, in a silent standoff, then the staff will keep digging the trenches.

Cooperation is a skill that is learned. No one is born to cooperate. It takes time, communication, practice and a certain mindset. People have to quash their “us and them” tendencies and look at “helping”  a neighboring department as part of what needs to be done in order to get to where the organization wants to go. Cooperation raises dilemmas that make competing look simple in contrast: Is my team suffering because we are spending too many resources to assist another department? Is it acceptable to criticize the work of a different part of the organization and who do I pass the criticism on to? When should we cooperate and when is it just more efficient for each team or individual to knuckle down and get their work done? Answering these and other questions all take time, management bandwidth, training and choosing the right managers.

Cooperation is time consuming, but competition is exhausting and can lead to frustration, anger and demotivation – especially for the “losing” side. In teamwork training, this is acute. When team-building days are based on competition, research shows that the losing teams conclude that they did not learn anything. As soon as an element of competition penetrates Tuval activities, the focus shifts to beating the other team and not obtaining an excellent result. Focusing on beating the competition is often essential when competing in the business market. However, when internal competition replaces the real business objectives, this can lead to complacency, missed opportunities, and energies focused in the wrong direction.

Cooperation or Competition Pic

Moment of Truth: Will these two teams cooperate or compete?

Remuneration is the most elusive issue. Many bonus schemes are based on individual achievements and far fewer on group achievements. In sales departments the problem is even more acute. If all your bonuses are individually based, then forget cooperation, people lending a hand or passing on leads. They may smile and play along at company fun days or even at team meetings but when they are out in the field, lone wolf behavior will dominate. Ways of rewarding achievement vary hugely. Try to free yourself from the shackles of habit and experiment with different methods until you find what works for you. For example, you might allocate bonuses according to 75% team and 25% individual contribution. The important thing is to keep things transparent so that everyone understands the rules and results of the game. Play around with the mix.

In western society, using group incentives takes courage.

Research shows that group incentives are an effective way to increase productivity. So why aren’t they more widely used? According to Professor Eyal Winter “…the answer is in the incentives given to senior managers who are responsible for these decisions, but must report to their bosses or shareholders. If the company comes into difficulty they will have to face more serious punishment if they have used an original method, as opposed to traditional methods.”

A lot of competition is hidden. People compete for prestige; they compete for resources including budget, tools and personnel. They compete for the next job, their own professional team’s image and they compete for the CEO’s attention and praise. You can’t root this out. The most important thing for management to do is to make sure that the cooperation – competition structures that are in place bring about the desired effect. If competition proves detrimental, then rein it in. Most importantly managers must “walk the talk” if they espouse integration, synergy and cooperation.

The role that information sharing plays. Information is distributed throughout an organization. Service departments know what most annoys customers or what customers want or  need in future products. Often one division in a big high tech company may invest huge resources to solve a problem that another division has already solved. If divisions are busy competing, then critical information will be blocked.

Breaking barriers is simpler than you think. Sometimes history, inherent functional tension and physical distance cause miscommunications that lower the possibility of cooperating even when it is essential. At Tuval, we often work with managers and teams who just need to spend more time together, play together and get to know each other’s needs.  Being well-acquainted or even friends can go a long way in keeping the tension down and the morale high when the going gets tough.

A final word from FDR:

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.

Franklin D. Roosevelt


Eyal Winter (2015) “One For All”, Ha’aretz Magazine, 27.3.2015.

Ibbetson, A., & Newell, S. (1999) “A comparison of a competitive and non-competitive outdoor management development programme.” Personnel Review Vol 28 (1/2) 58-76


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