I grew up playing sports and would label myself as a competitive person. I like to win. You can ask anyone in my family and they will agree. My experience in sports shaped how I approached building and participating in teams at work. This competitive approach seemed to serve me well earlier in my career, but I don’t believe that I understood the cost of this approach until recently.
Creating a high functioning team was easier when I was leading a small group, and we were focused on delivery something of high value in a limited period of time. I look back fondly at the eResearch team, the deep connections that we built, and the value we delivered in advancing research at the University of Michigan. We had an “us against the world” view; we bonded as a team and were able to successfully deliver a highly complex project.
While I was managing the eResearch team, I joined the leadership team of the Central Campus IT organization. One of the challenges that I experienced as a member of a leadership team was that my peers and I were focused on developing and optimizing our own individual teams and the leadership team didn’t feel like a team. I remember the CIO challenging us all to start thinking of the leadership team as our team.
Fast forward a few years, and I found that I was now the leader of a leadership team where the team members were optimizing their own individual teams and our own leadership team didn’t always feel like a team. This forced me to ask me what I was doing that contributed to this dynamic on both teams.
I spent a lot of time studying and thinking about this, and identified several things that I was doing that were increasing competition and undermining trust and cohesiveness within the team.
- I realized that I was quick to criticize and judge. I often fell into the trap of thinking and acting like I could do (fill in the blank) better. This created resentment, resistance, and undermined trust.
- I was playing favorites and relying too much on a few of the team members, which increased the internal competition on the team and underutilized really talented people.
- My vision for the group was self-focused and competitive with other groups.
Competition is a built-in survival response to scarcity that we have transferred into our modern context, and it especially shows up in a hierarchal organization. How much energy and time do you spend battling over budget, title, position, credit, control, and ideas? Does it increase your energy? Does it increase your effectiveness? How does it affect the rest of the team when you go to battle with others?
This is a seismic shift in thinking for me and it is easy for me to slip back into being competitive because it is a habit. However, when I can replace the competitiveness with aligning to purpose and supporting others regardless of whether they are on “my team,” it is energizing, fun, and much more effective. It is the difference between focusing on being “Leaders and Best” to focusing on being “Leaders who Help Others be their Best.”