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The Secret to Winning – Often not what you think it is: Competition vs. Cooperation

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Recently, as I was listening to the TED Radio Hour on NPR, I was intrigued by a TEDWomen 2015 talk by Margaret Heffernan about how our traditional ideas of competition and pecking orders based on individual achievement are causing much more harm than good. In her talk, Heffernan talks about “The Superchicken Model” which was derived from the work of an evolutionary biologist from Purdue University named William Muir who studied chickens. Muir found that a flock of chickens made up of only the high producers (i.e., the “superchickens”) eventually failed over time due to the fact that all but three of them died as they pecked each other to death. In essence, the heightened competition literally killed most of them.

In terms of human interaction, the idea of “the superchicken model” is when an environment (a law school, a law firm, a family, a company, etc.) focuses on rewarding only the highest producers. Give an incentive to achieve the most and everyone will try harder to be at the top. To those high producers are given the most resources, the most attention, the most respect. For most of us, this idea is so engrained that it seems almost sacrilegious to question the efficacy of this model. “Of course you want to only reward the best people. How else will we be motivated to achieve more?” It sounds like a fair way to do things. Reward success and success will increase. It’s the race to the top. It’s simple behavioral science.

Unfortunately, this is not how it actually plays out in real life. Heffernan gives numerous examples of how competitive environments lead to less productivity and profit in companies. Whereas, increased cooperation among all people (yes, all of us average people and not the “superstars”) actually results in more productivity, more success, and more creativity. In many ways, we need to question what motivates us when it comes to our work. Are we truly motivated to get the recognition of being the best or are we more motivated by doing meaningful work, together.

Heffernan had a simple suggestion to increase cooperation among coworkers; take shared coffee breaks. Simply spending time together with other employees and getting to know each other on a personal level encouraged people to share ideas, problem solve, and work together more efficiently than ever before. The longer that people worked together, the more social capital they created. In other words, the more they trusted each other.

Obviously, if you work in an environment that does not have designated coffee breaks, there are other ways to accomplish this goal. One of the key factors to success with these shared coffee breaks was that people were getting to know each other which led to them being more willing to offer help to and ask for help from one another. The element of competition was not present. In a highly competitive environment, the success of the superstar is typically dependent on suppressing the success of the competition. If there is only one “top spot” that everyone is vying for, then the success of someone else is interpreted as a threat as opposed to an asset. In this case, individual success becomes an invitation for attack. Case in point: any presidential primary in modern history.

Closer to home, law schools are a great example of a dysfunctional system of competition. Most law students are told that they need to be at the top of their class to get the job they want (or perhaps any job at all). Added to this, grades in law school are often scaled in comparison to the performance of other students. So you either fail or succeed in comparison to how other students perform. This competitive environment values individual achievement and does not encourage cooperation and teamwork. The result is that most law students leave law school feeling worn out and beaten down, as opposed to successful.

Another example that Heffernan used was the case of the pop star versus the musical collaborator. We all know of many popular recording artists that enjoyed short-term success. The key to their success (and their quick departure from the public view) was their own individual talent. Compare that to musical collaborators or producers who work to bring out the best in others. Those who work to bring out the best in others, and help them succeed, often enjoy longer lasting success.

When we consider work in a team environment, we often think that the successful team would include the highest achievers, or the smartest people, or at least the group as a whole would be the smartest group in the room. In fact, it is none of these. Heffernan identifies the three qualities of a successful team as 1) having a high degree of social sensitivity to others (i.e., empathy), 2) giving equal time to each person, and 3) having more women in the group.

So how does one find success in their work in the real world? Here are a few suggestions based on Heffernan’s research and experience.

  1. Let go of the idea that success is achieved by outperforming everyone else
  2. Get to know colleagues (and people in general) on a personal level so that you can build social capital (trust).
  3. Spend more time talking with people who have different perspectives then you do on issues
  4. Invest time in helping others achieve their best.
  5. Practice asking for help.
  6. Start to see conflict as a helpful process as opposed to a threat (In successful teams, “Conflict is frequent because candor is safe”.)

The key to success is simple, yet can be quite difficult. Cooperating with others, working through conflicts, and helping others succeed is the proven way to success. The tough part is giving up the idea that success comes from individual achievement and giving up the idea that success is measured with quick results. Success takes time and requires an investment in others.


Shawn Healy, PhD



CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns

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