125 — When Competition Is Destructive

 

Internal competition often works against a good culture, against open communication, against success. No senior manager deliberately wants to close down communications, but competition in a leadership team can stifle openness throughout the company.

Most executives are unaware of the effect of their driving competitiveness. For example, you have probably experienced the well-meaning suggestions from an executive, that quickly turn to a shower of unwanted directives; or seen executives criticize another department, that unintentionally stifles cross-functional cooperation.

Aggression Above, Defense Below

Aggressive competitive behavior at the top of any organization sets the stage for aggressive, protective and defensive behavior below — such as mistrust and rigid, rule bound, and “siloed” communication. While these cultural patterns are understandable they are bad for morale, productivity, customer service and corporate success.

In the public sector, the politically appointed or elected officials compete for their share of public opinion, often criticizing each other openly. This is true in all levels of government, and in state and federal agencies. As long as organizations have combat at the top, they’ll have dysfunctional patterns below.

In every organization managers and supervisors try to protect their people from the often destructive environment they see above them. This is easier to do if your offices are physically removed from corporate headquarters. If you are in the same building it may be impossible.

One Solution — Put It On The Table For Discussion

Sometimes a good discussion about competition and communications among the members of the executive team is enough to begin changing this cultural pattern. The discussion can be fairly straightforward. One opener might be, “I’d like to hear from each of you about a situation you were in recently where communications really worked well. After that I’d like us to discuss what qualities made these situations work so well. Then I’d like to see what we can do, as the leadership group, to demonstrate more of these qualities throughout our organization. Who’d like to begin?”

Example — How One Leadership Team Changed from Combat to Cooperation

This company has 5,000 employees. I met monthly with the senior leaders to discuss building a more productive company culture. At one of these morning meetings, a manager complained that several divisions were not working well together in the field.

I had often reminded the group, “Nothing occurs in a vacuum. What you do as leaders sets the stage. People follow your example. What happens elsewhere is partly because of your actions here. And in any case, to be practical, what you do as leaders is what you can most easily change.”

This time I asked, “What are you doing that contributes to this lack of cooperation? For example, in the last six months have any of you criticized another person in this room or in another department or division?” Immediately a manger shot back with, “You mean since breakfast this morning don’t you?” Another manager chimed in, “You mean since the coffee break!”

Once the laughter died down, I hardly needed to say it — but did anyway. “So here you set an example by criticizing other people and divisions and then wonder why they don’t feel like cooperating.” This was one of those rare moments of insight for the group.

What They Changed

At the next meeting they told stories of how they had almost entirely stopped criticizing. Instead they were working together on cooperative solutions that could be easily noticed by others. For example, they decided to travel as pairs on site visits to exemplify cross department cooperation. They prohibited negative comments from their own managers, instead, helping them face and resolve issues.

The managers said that people noticed the change and liked it. The problem of lack of cooperation had significantly disappeared. All this in four weeks! Impressive.

cc 125 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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Posted in: About Company Culture — Structure

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