When it comes to getting ahead in your
organization, is it a case of survival of the fittest, or the survival of
the kindest? While most organizations are fuelled by a fierce competitive
spirit that drives us to work faster, harder, and better than others, studies suggest that over time,
competition undermines our performance.
“The most productive workplaces are
characterized by trust and helpfulness,” explained Dr. Margaret Heffernan when I interviewed her recently. “We do much better
supporting each other.”
For example, in an effort to understand
how natural selection plays out practically, evolutionary
biologist William Muir investigated how to breed the most productive
chickens. Seeking to increase egg production – the marker of a successful flock
– Muir first identified the most productive groups of hens and observed them as
they bred freely. Then, as a contrast, he selected the most productive
individual hens and used them for breeding the next generation of hens to see
if these ‘super-hens’ would be more productive.
After six generations, Muir compared the
results. The free flocks were still full of plump, fully feathered hens, and
egg production had increased dramatically throughout the experiment. But in the second group,
the supposedly ‘super-hens’, after six generations, only three hens were left; the other six had
been murdered. The three survivors were nearly bare of feathers, having plucked
each other mercilessly.
Muir concluded that the productivity of
the few had been achieved by suppressing the productivity of the rest.
“We don’t survive well as super-chickens
pecking everybody to death,” explained Margaret.
So how can you improve trust and helpfulness in your
a safe space – your workplace can improve to the degree that your people
feel safe and trusted. Instead of using competition or fear of job tenure, evidence
suggests that people who work together get much better over time, so that you
can gain more productivity, commitment, and engagement by retaining your people
and creating a safe environment. If you feel that you need to say certain
things to please the people above and keep quiet about other things because
it’s just too dangerous to speak up, you’ll stop raising real concerns or
worries. Although companies are often shocked by big problems, these often
started out as small issues that people knew about but didn’t share because
they were afraid. Rather than having a culture of ‘silence in the boardroom,
violence in the hallway’ try to build psychologically safe spaces where people can
talk openly and respectfully about issues.
ideas – ideas aren’t born in a kind of single moment of blinding insight.
They generally start off pretty vague and then become outstanding through explorative
discussion and vigorous debate. Create space for your people to feel safe to
say: “I’ve got an idea, but it’s not fully baked yet.” The ensuing questions
or arguments can then be a gift that taps into the intellectual capital that
you’ve invested in hiring. Encourage people to guide their contributions by
asking: “Is there anything you could say or do that would make this idea or
this discussion better?”
- Institutionalizing dissent – rather than
the usual dissent around things like food and parking, encourage institutional
dissent around things that matter such as strategy, product, services, and
culture. One way to do this is to assign dissent roles to people such as
someone to look at the alternatives to a proposal, another to consider what
experiments you could do to test some of your ideas, another could look at what
comparable industries or organizations are doing, and another role to consider
if you were a start-up or disrupting your business, how would you do that? In
this way, you’re giving permission for people to test and stretch the thinking
within your organization, to ensure much better decision making and lower
levels of risk.
social capital – make
regular times for your people to just talk to each other about whatever
they want to talk about. While you may think that this sounds inefficient as
you get to know others better, you’ll trust others more and share more
information more quickly that can help ideas grow. For example, one study found
that when synchronized coffee breaks were introduced in one organization,
profits increased by $15 million, and employee satisfaction increased by 10%.
Research has also found by creating quiet windows of time when you can focus on
a task without interruption, your productivity can increase by 60%, and you’ll
be more willing to help others outside this window.
What can you do to choose trust and
collaboration over competition?