Competition and Cooperation: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

Team building has become one of the biggest buzzwords in management circles with good reason. It’s difficult to refute the advantages of having a well-oiled workgroup team that supplements and supports each others’ skills and competencies. The prevalence of the team work concept has led management to toss out competition as a motivator on their projects - an unfortunate loss, rather like tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Let me digress a moment.

I have a young friend who works for a cooperative grocery store chain that emphasizes teamwork and cooperation among its workers. The business is built on the concept of teams - each store in the chain is its own team, and within each store there are multiple teams, each responsible for a shift, and on each shift, there are teams responsible for each aspect of the work that needs to be accomplished each day. The various teams both cooperate and compete with each other - they compete between store sites for best performance, they compete between shifts for attendance and accomplishment, they compete within teams to contribute the most - with all this competition going on, one would think that the entire team cooperation concept would be, to put it bluntly, shot to heck.

In practice, though, it works. It works to the extent that the company is one of the fastest growing supermarket chains in the country, and it works to the extent that the company has built a customer AND employee loyalty rating that is hard to beat anywhere. So why is it that an organization that should be fragmenting itself by encouraging competition among its staff is instead succeeding in creating and building a team-focused enterprise that is beating the competition?

The secret? The model of teams within teams maximizes on the concept of “cooperate internally - compete externally”. Every employee of the grocery chain is a member of multiple teams at once, all of them with a common goal. At the same time, my friend is the member of the overall team, of his store team, of his shift team and of his workgroup team. While his shift team may be competing with other shifts to move the most product, they are also cooperating in the store team’s effort to post the highest profit and the overall company goal to provide the best service to all of its customers. This has the effect of discouraging sabotage of other teams and encouraging the inter-team cooperation to advance the overall goal of the larger team.

Cooperative team building can benefit from strategic implementation of competition in the same way. Keep in mind that both competition AND cooperation are natural to human beings - the trick is to manage them both so that one supports the other rather than diminishing it.