Teams: Balancing Competition And Connection

It is that time of year again. The silly season is upon us and barely a week will pass between now and Christmas without a year-end event – team lunches, division drinks, afternoons out of the office all round. Activities designed to connect, unite and strengthen our teams. Establishing common bonds and shared connection outside the confines of the office tower.

In my mind, connection is the key to becoming a great team. In my experience the best teams are the teams that enjoy being around each other.

For many of us it is also the time of year for another constant of the corporate calendar, year-end performance reviews. Complex systems and processes of self-evaluation and calibration which divide and conquer teams. Ranking and rewarding individuals for the year’s achievements.

As leaders we spend equal if not more hours calibrating our teams as individuals as we will carving out time for connection. This year more than ever I have contemplated can you actually have connection as well as competition?

By definition, competition is the activity of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others. In order for one to win, one must lose. For some to be successful others must be unsuccessful. It can create an environment where people sabotage one another in their quest for top spot.

The organisational cost for competition gone wrong can also be huge. Competition can kill experimentation and prevent people trying new things. It can kill an organisations ability to build community. Competition can establish conformity – one way of thinking, one approach, perhaps one world view.

The key word here is “can”. The behaviours described above presents a very Machiavellian view of us all…“Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain.”

But surely not all of us are as Machiavelli would suggest? Will we consistently overlook connection to win at all costs?

The Olympics have long been considered the pinnacle of human sporting achievement. Annual sales targets are one thing, but once every four years the world’s best athletes come together, united in competition. This year in Rio we saw connection and competition coexisting in the most amazing way. Midway through the second heat of the 5000m, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin stumbled, clipping the runner behind her, American Abbey D’Agostino who fell to the track. Instead of leaving in the pursuit of glory, D’Agostino urged Hamblin up, refusing to leave without her.

When asked about the incident later Hamblin said, “You come into an Olympic Games and everyone wants to win, everyone wants to medal. But really as disappointing as this experience is there is so much more to this than a medal. When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years time, that’s my story.”

What it came down to was values and beliefs. Hearing Hamblin say this experience was so much more than a medal tells me she values relationships, she values serving others that she is someone who cares about other people. It tells me she believes in things like integrity, honour and generosity. And that she will forever have a connection with D’Agostino.

Was winning important?

Absolutely. Four years of blood, sweat and tears, four years of missing birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases. Four years of lying in bed hoping, wishing, dreaming.

You don’t get to the Olympics without being fiercely competitive. You also don’t exist as a human without some sort of value and belief system. In Hamblin’s story you see values and beliefs playing out in the way she competed. And whilst competition was important Hamblin’s story and success at these Olympics will be defined by her connection with D’Agostino.

Sure the Olympics is not immune to the fickle, hypocritical people greedy of gain of which Machiavelli speaks. But they are the minority, not the majority. And in the same way we don’t want these kinds of people at the Olympics, we shouldn’t want them in our teams or organisations and we as leaders have a big role to play in that.

As leaders we must deliver results but competition alone is not enough. We need to realise that we cannot rely on individuals to deliver our results. We need to rely on teams. And with teams it’s simple. Connection builds trust. Trust creates commitment. Commitment cultivates teamwork. Teamwork delivers results.

It’s easy for us as leaders to succumb to measurement hysteria and obsess on how individuals are performing against daily unit sales, monthly customer orders, and quarterly revenue reports.

As leaders it is easy to focus all your efforts on the destination – the year-end scorecard and miss the hard to measure qualitative indicators that tell the story of your team working towards those metrics. Is the journey taken in line with the beliefs, values and cultural expectations that you set for your team?

Valuing the journey not just the destination requires leadership to be more attentive to how people are working together toward the vision. It requires leadership to focus on quality of interactions and not just the quantity of what is brought in.

Competition and connection coexisting is not simply about adding columns like respect, love, trust and care to the spreadsheets that measure performance. It requires leaders stepping out of their office, observing and interacting with team members. It requires listening, being present and having patience. It requires you looking at patterns and noticing reactions. It is knowing what values and beliefs you stand for and what you will hold others accountable to.

I believe the best way organisations can address the challenges they have with competition and connection coexisting is by completely changing what individuals and teams compete on.

We as leaders determine what is rewarded, by virtue of our position we determine the rules of the game. Make the rules of the game about loving colleagues and loving customers and you might find those in your team competing with one another to pick up those in the team who fall down.

Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?

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