My children grew up at a time when every child who made it from one end of the pool to the other during the Saturday morning swim-meets got a ribbon, not a blue ribbon, but a ribbon nonetheless. The thinking was that their self-esteem might be damaged if they were not praised for every effort. Perhaps some of this trend persists today, but it has certainly been challenged by those who believe that motivation and achievement come not only from confidence built on self-esteem but also from knowledge of one’s strengths and pride in the ability to do some things better than most other people. In other words, competition can be healthy, not only for our economy but for individuals as well. And whether we like it or not, competition is inextricably woven into our American culture.
We seem now to have entered an age in which the notion of collaboration is ubiquitous. U.S. Intelligence Agencies are urged to collaborate in order to ‘connect the dots’ to prevent terrorist activity, state and local agencies are being asked to collaborate (and one step further – consolidate) to achieve efficiency and cost savings, within organizations, functional departments must collaborate to become more innovative, agile and responsive to customers. The very word ‘collaboration’ has taken on a motherhood-and apple-pie sort of goodness connotation.
How do these two concepts jibe with one another? Is it possible to become collaborative when individuals, groups, whole organizations have been programmed and rewarded to compete? If so, how do we do it? And is collaboration really right for every situation? How do we determine where it is useful and where it might not be?
We believe that there are definite benefits to becoming collaborative in some situations, particularly those that are characterized by the following:
Even when these conditions are present, it may not be an easy thing to turn a traditionally competitive set of relationships into collaborative ones. One sure-fire way to guarantee failure is to continue to reward ‘winners’ without also compensating collaborative activities and outcomes. Although difficult, it is possible for organizations to create a balance between encouraging healthy internal competition and maintaining a culture that rewards loyalty to the organization as a whole.
To do this takes more than well thought out policies: It takes a set of skills and behaviors that may not come naturally to most. These include all of the skills associated with resolving differences and managing conflict constructively.