Team Building Theories: Competition or Collaboration?


When we talk about team building theories we must be competitive. But when we talk about the workforce should you foster competition or collaboration?

Team Building Theories: Competition or Collaboration

The “Coopetitive” Theory

In organizations, employees cooperate to achieve shared objectives but simultaneously compete for promotions and other rewards. A new team building theory was developed at the Wharton School of Business, the definition of “coopetitive” arose to characterize workplace relations that are both collaborative and competitive. (Milkman, Huang, Schweiter 2014)

The Need for Guidelines and Policies

Competition can teach you the biggest lessons if you are willing to listen, learn and implement.  At the firm-level coopetition with other firms can spur growth and generative advantage (Yami, Castaldo, Dognino, and Roy 2010.)  Without guidelines to govern behavior in the workplace at the individual-level, it may impact the way employees negotiate relationships.  Team building theories have shown employees can find ambiguity psychologically confusing. (Gersick, Dutton and Bartunek, 2000.) As colleagues’ perceptions of their peers shift from collaborators to competitors they may become less effective and impact the advancement of organization goals.

Competition vs. Cooperation

This fundamental tension between cooperating or competing can be costly.  Perry W. Buffington says, “Without equivocation… unabated competition can cost billions of dollars in sales and overall decreases in human achievement.”  Cooperation creates fluid team building and allows everyone to participate without fear of censure.  It also has an impact on an individual’s perception, and thus engagement, in the workplace.

Team building theories indicate that without clear guidelines on when to engage competitively or cooperatively co-workers may unknowingly create an atmosphere of “group think” where inappropriate conformity arises.  On the other hand, adopting a competitive stance may result in exploitation, interpersonal conflict and burnout.

Game Theory

Different employees respond better to different motivations.  The sales department is competitive.  The customer service department is cooperative. A new team building theory in the office is “software gamification.” Some companies are adopting computer games to fight employee ambiguity, disengagement and confusion.

A recent article on HubSpot says that the best solutions often satisfy both collaborative and competitive team members, and programs can be customized for any use case.

Focus on Education, Awareness and Increased Insight

As human beings, are we cooperative or competitive?  We are one of the most cooperative species on the planet, says Sandra Aamodt.  She writes “the interesting question is not so much whether we are in a natural state of one or the other, we clearly have both tendencies in abundance. It’s how they interact and which promotes one against the other.”  Team building needs education, awareness and increased insight, only then can a balanced strategy be achieved.

Payal Chanania says, “Therefore as leaders… first be a stable and guiding role model. Actively provide inspiration and support as you encourage your employees to do better.  Establish clear policies regarding competition and communicate effectively so everyone knows what behavior is acceptable.”

It is only through new team building theories that a balanced strategy can be implemented to create a culture that best deploys both competition and cooperation.