Coaching Case Study By Laura Maria Vieru
(Transformational Coach, SWITZERLAND)
Step 1:Finding a common enemy
The root of my paper goes back to episodes experienced back in my childhood, and even though not fully aware and understanding of what was happening, I did observe a pattern that generated more meaningful connections and efficient collaboration.
Brothers and sisters are our first playmates and friends, and I am blessed to have a younger brother. Needless to say, it was very difficult at times, but I do remember that certain situations would always bring us closer.
Finding peaceful times and maintaining a collaborative relationship seemed to be more difficult when we would identify ourselves as two stand-alone characters, with individual interests and priorities, trying to outgrow each other. However, we would turn to best friends with either common goals or willingness to compromise for the well-being of our “team”, as soon as we wound find ourselves in a position of playing against a common “enemy”. From soccer games against the nearby neighborhood and mathematics competitions against other schools to finding alternatives to suppress irritation after being grounded for the weekend by our parents.
All of these small challenges have helped us grow closer together.
Step 2: Introducinggamification
It was only in my early 20s when I started observing this pattern at a larger scale, involving young, self knowledgeable adults engaged in company team building activities and competitions.
I was impressed by how guided activities and group coaching have augmented teams to set aside desires to prove themselves as individuals for the success of the overall group.
Let’s say your team of four is competing against another team of four, you can select any team member to complete this particular task, and the goal is to complete a 200m sprint in under one minute.
I could try to win this one, but speed is not really where I shine. Our young colleague, Maria, could attempt to cover it but she is also not very sporty and her 2 MBAs in science are not levers for this goal. Our team lead Mark might want a shot at this, but he had a recent knee injury and his 20 years of management experience are also not an advantage here. However, our new joiner, Carl, is a father of 2 active young boys and practices water sports during summertime. Potentially this is achievable for all of us, but my vote goes out to Carl.
From these gamified competitions, I understood that we do not all need to be the strongest, the fastest, the sharpest, the most optimistic, or the most communicative. Actually, we are all different, we all have different competitive types but the more diverse the assets, the sturdier the team. We all have a role to play based on our individual strengths.
The science of competing vs. collaborating
Psychologists have yet to agree on whether you are born a competitor, or you grow to become one. Depending on whether the competitive desire is coming from within or driven by the crowd it will also impact the chances of achieving and sustaining your goal for a longer-term.
Nevertheless, if we differentiate between “good competition” and “bad completion” to account for the years of shifting opinions, the “good competition” can incentivize to surface the best out of individuals and support their understanding of themselves.
On the other side of the coin, it is well known and recognized that collaboration has been and continues to be essential for our survival and growth. Or as Bertrand Russell put it, it is “the only thing that will redeem mankind.”
Collaboration requires time, patience, trust, and commitment but it is a tool that enables participants to go beyond their own agendas, for the success of the team. And psychologists agree that collaboration can be considered a “dream tool”.
Neuroscience comments that “neurons in the specific region of the frontal cortex, called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, become active during decisions involving competitive effort” or that competitiveness is in our genes and it helps to reprocess dopamine, helping our brain to adapt to new situations, memorize and plan.
Our brains are shaped by heredities, time, surroundings, experiences, and thoughts. All of these are influencing the different neuronal paths that create our perceptions and assumptions. And although we are routed differently, we all react when different stimuli are triggered, and we either compete or collaborate.
Some other scholars argue that competitiveness “is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for (human) survival.” And biology supports the statement that it is a result of evolution and it is a normal, natural, understandable human tendency.
After the idea was introduced 100 years ago by Alfred Sloan at General Motors, significant testing has been performed so that we can confidently conclude that collaborating to grow and inspire while leveraging healthy competition against a “common enemy” has many benefits. From increased performance, productivity, and innovation, improved revenue and savings, improved team skills and morale as well as camaraderie beyond office walls and team loyalty.
My thoughts, as a result of my own experience, as well as the available research and evidence, is that competition is beneficial when properly dosed and carefully managed. The negative side associated with winning at all costs or drowning in a bad aftertaste of a lost competition cannot be ignored. Therefore, competition needs to be performed in teams, and combined with collaboration, in the space of a gamified “rivalry”.
Misconceptions about competitiveness
Forty years after Richard Dawkins called it the “selfish gene”, the damage persists.
Furthermore, what genes do in their interactions with each other, whether competitive or cooperative, has nothing to do with whether the organisms they create are selfish or altruistic: That is a much more complex issue and depends. Remember, it is our genes and evolution that give us not only our selfish impulses but also our higher ethical and moral impulses, as well as the altruistic feelings we prize, including love for our children, family, and friends and the heady feeling of romantic love.
Competition is about motivation, desire, presenting, and pushing yourself to be your best version. Nevertheless, people continue to misunderstand competitiveness as an aggressive, pushy, unfair, or even mean behavior, and would not want to be associated with this trait.
Not finding it worthwhile or exciting enough to take a stand, does not mean that you are not competitive. Also, being a nice person does not necessarily mean that you cannot be competitive. Some fights are not worth fighting, and that is completely fine.
Science actually shows that the best competitors are nice people that respect their opponents and I encourage people to explore that side of themselves as well.
Many of us are competitive by nature, and who can resist a fun, engaging, playful competition?
My recommendation involves collaboration within a team while competing against another. Touching upon both sides of the coin to maximize opportunities for discovery and development.
- Create a safe, positive, and fun environment for team buildings and competitive activities between different teams or companies
- Establish the rules of the game and boundaries for interaction and behavior
- Set small “prizes” for each activity, allowing for the competitive spirit to break indifference, compliance, and boredom
- Support each individual to find the best version of themselves and perform at their best level to achieve both personal and team goals
- Stimulate team growth and deeper collaboration through sharing of individual strengths and potential levers for delivering the best results for the team
- Inspire ambitions for new skills, interests, and overall personal growth that can transpire beyond the competition itself, into people’s lives and careers
- Encourage responsibility and leadership yet allow for participants to engage in activities that feel meaningful for them
- Debrief together and allow for everyone’s voice to be heard. Allow for learnings to surface, both from colleagues and competition
- Explore relatedness to create stronger collaboration and trust between participants
- Foster acceptance and honesty while allowing for the discovery of personal values and overlap with team/organization values
- Set aside time and create opportunities for teams to interact at a personal level and strengthen trust
- Allow for autonomous tasks towards the end of the team building, to observe individual changes and shift in collaboration between participants
- Be an active listener and a careful observant. Bring awareness back to participants and acknowledge their growth
- Be open with your observations and allow for teams to define next steps, timelines, and support structures following the team building