Most of us will have witnessed this scenario at some point in our working lives: the goals are defined, team members are talented, capable, motivated, and ambitious. And yet – the team isn’t achieving its potential. All that ambition and energy is being delivered in different directions.
Whilst competition within a business can be healthy, it can also be the source—or symptom—of a deeper conflict within teams. Such conflict is something we come across quite regularly when delivering our programmes for clients, and there are a number of reasons why that can happen.
For a start, if people within a team are prioritising their own personal agenda over the team agenda, then that’s certainly something which can sabotage team performance. We see this a lot in senior management teams when egos get in the way, when a lot of time is spent in battle with colleagues rather than trying to work together and collaborate.
Sometimes, the competition is more passive-aggressive. An issue we come across is that people will say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’. In a meeting with the team, everyone nods their head and commits to their actions, but some will have no intention of supporting that action and will even report back to their own team that this strategy is not going to work.
There is a degree of competitiveness that is inherent in human nature which might be an underlying factor. It’s the responsibility of a leader, then, to address this culture of disruption. The problem, however, is that leaders have often achieved their position due to their competitiveness, and much of this disruption can actually occur within the senior teams.
An example we’ve seen recently involved a long-term strategy that was due to be rolled out across an organisation. Within the senior leadership team, two or three members objected to the concept, and sabotaged the process by pulling the plan apart in an unhelpful way. As a result, that strategy was abandoned, resulting in indecision about how they might move forward. Those individuals have since left the team!
Business culture can clearly be quite individualistic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the type of work we do, we look at those dynamics and help people to understand when this can be a disruptive element of team relationships. While a degree of competitiveness can be positive, it can also be a symptom of something deeper going wrong within an organisation. Sometimes, people are so dissatisfied with their role, they are just looking to be heard. They might feel their opinion wasn’t sought in the first place, and so haven’t engaged in the idea. This can be a symptom of people misunderstanding what they need to be competing on or knowing who they need to be competing with.
For instance, why would the marketing director compete with the sales director? Clearly the collaboration between those people would be more effective than competing for recognition. If they were both competing to be the best in their role, then the organisation benefits.
Even within departments, competition can happen. For instance, in sales, it is often about who gets the leads or makes the sale, and it’s actively encouraged. That’s good and healthy, but it can cause destructive rivalry as well. It’s something that needs addressing directly to recognise the origins – for example, a fear of someone else’s success, or of not getting the credit; anger at being overlooked for a role, or reason for a success.
It’s a complex dynamic, but we see it an awful lot, and it really affects the performance of teams. In contrast, when you look at high-performing sports teams, the need for individual glory usually takes a back seat to the success of the team.
So what steps can be taken to mirror this in a business context?
It starts with having direct conversations. That’s very often the most critical part of the work we do with organisations. We look at the dynamics in the team and if people don’t get on with each other, then we need to understand what that’s really about. Having those conversations is fundamental, but often business teams aren’t doing it. They’ll talk about projects and tasks, and even objectives and goals for the team, but they don’t sit back and look at ‘how are we actually getting on together?’.
We can go into an organisation, and someone will say ‘Oh yeah, the manager and the deputy manager have got real issues with each other’. The staff know it, it’s been like that for a long time, but there’s no real plan to overcome it. It’s really quite interesting, because if those managers aren’t aligned, it has massive implications in terms of how things get communicated and followed through, and how people view the leadership. It can have a very negative ripple effect.
In some organisations, and indeed sectors, there is the problem of blame culture. The focus is on who is at fault rather than seeing things going wrong as an opportunity to improve. In such an environment, it’s natural to try and avoid being the one to be blamed, so problems get hidden, mistakes are made and issues don’t get found out quickly enough.
In a recent documentary on Boeing, this was illustrated very dramatically. Boeing had a reputation for quality and safety first – if an engineer raised a problem, they wouldn’t release the plane until that problem was solved.
But as the commercial drivers became more about pleasing the shareholders, more mistakes were happening. People were still speaking out, but they were told by management ‘we don’t want to know about that, stop causing trouble’. As a result, two planes crashed within five months of each other, which had never happened in the history of aviation, since the introduction of safety protocols.
Rather than working for the good of the company, the leadership were working on behalf of the shareholders, and indeed were themselves major shareholders. That agenda took Boeing from the most respected airline manufacturer in the world to being massively overtaken by Airbus.
Sometimes organisations can’t have these difficult conversations without external help and support, because generally people don’t like conflict. It can be uncomfortable raising issues, and it’s often easier or more of a priority to just get the job done. But this overlooks the benefits of improving those dynamics. Getting that team working more effectively together impacts the overall success of the business.
A leader really needs to be able to address these dynamics, but like anything, there’s a skill in facilitating that. It’s not necessarily just the responsibility of a leader either – two members of the same team may be having an issue that is making them negatively competitive, but they may not have the skills to have it out with each other.
There are frameworks that can be implemented to address issues as they come up, but there is a skill to doing it, and it does require candour and trust. For example: we worked with a client who had a leader that was very unpopular in their organisation. We had to ask their team and colleagues ‘why don’t you like them; why are you cutting them out?’ We delivered some difficult feedback – they were considered to be rude, demanding, and difficult. That’s challenging to address and difficult to hear.
Of course, people don’t get on from time to time, and we find some people easier to get on with than others, but it’s part of our professional responsibilities to deal with that, to operate authentically. When a leader becomes aware of these situations, they really should address them as a performance issue.
But fundamental to this all happening successfully, is for people to be comfortable enough to change. That requires trust. With the work that we do, over a period of time, working both one-to-one and in the group, our consultants earn the trust and foster the trust of and between those individuals and that team. So then, at that point when potentially contentious changes are suggested, or the need to address certain dynamics are raised, people are ready to hear that message.
The founder of Person-Centred Therapy, Carl Rogers (1957), talks about creating the core conditions for personality change, which are empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. When you create these three conditions, it facilitates the foundation for the open communication and trust that ultimately enables positive change. We would argue that these are just as relevant to business psychology as to psychotherapy.
Rogers CR. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2007 Sep;44(3):240-8. doi: 10.1037/0033-3126.96.36.199. PMID: 22122245.