Competition vs. Collaboration

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

Late in my Air Force career, I had the great fortune to command a fantastic group of diverse, talented Airmen. The only downside was that we lacked sufficient personnel and resources to be fully capable of executing our assigned mission, which pitted me against my peers in a competition for more – more people, more money, more equipment, and more priority. I thought it was the perfect job for me, because I’d spent most of my career competing for more.

Coworkers punching each other in office

Unfortunately (for me), my boss cared more about getting along and collaborating with each other. After a little attitude adjustment, I found that working with the other commanders, cross-training and developing people, and sharing the awards and recognition when their folks were involved made us all more effective and successful.

Not surprisingly, I was raised in a performance review system that encouraged competition, not collaboration. After all, we only want the best to be the leaders of our military forces, right?

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

But are you and your performance review system identifying the best leaders or the best doers? Are they being rewarded for their individual performance, or are they being recognized for how successful they’re making their team – or your organization – even if they’re not the leader?

When the rewards system keeps them focused on what they do and not why they do it, they become more competitive than collaborative. They put a priority on accomplishments and technical competence and miss out on the people skills development that comes from succeeding – or failing – as part of a team.

It gets worse when you promote the best doer to an unprepared manager.

I’ve read a lot of management job descriptions with sentences that start “Leads this…” and “Leads that…” 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 being used effectively.

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 at all levels – especially senior leadership – against each other, you end up with people who spend their time jockeying for position, competing for resources, and vying for attention and recognition.

backstabberThey end up focused on themselves, not the organization and certainly not the people they’re charged to lead. I’ve seen too many senior leadership “teams” pretending 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 feel they’re doing compared to others?

Don’t wait for HR to change the system. Have the conversations now that set the expectations for the rest of the year! Your leaders still have a quarter of 2016 to make a difference.

Or not.

It’s up to you, leaders.