Working with Colleagues: Should You Collaborate or Compete?
Randall Peterson, founding director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, studies coworker dynamics. He says lately, the idea of head-to-head competition for advancement has gone out of style in favor of a more cooperative ideal. In reality, he says, interpersonal relationships at work can be both. Sometimes you cooperate closely with colleagues. Sometimes you compete directly with them. And sometimes it’s most effective to work independently. He explains how to deal with each scenario. And he shares how managers can help their teams find the right balance. Peterson is a coauthor of the HBR article “When to Cooperate with Colleagues and When to Compete.”
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
We all know the trope. The ultra-cutthroat work environment, where it’s all about success at the expense of those around you. That’s supposed to be out of date nowadays with all the celebrating of collaboration, shared purpose, the teamwork that makes the dream work. The reality is somewhere in between. We’re all human and the risks we carry and the interests that motivate us are never one in the same as the organizations and our colleagues. Incentives like promotions can be binary. And like it or not, the people who tend to thrive in workplaces know when to collaborate with their colleagues and when to compete with them.
Today’s guest has studied cooperative rivalries on the job for more than 25 years. He says too many people think of work relationships as simply negative or positive, when virtually all are a mix of both. To effectively manage them, he says, you first have to understand where you and your colleagues fall on the conflict collaboration spectrum.
Randall Peterson is the founding director of the Leadership Institute and a professor at London Business School. Together with LBS professor Kristin Behfar he wrote the HBR article “When To Cooperate With Colleagues and When To Compete.” Randall, great to have you here to talk about this.
RANDALL PETERSON: Thank you, Curt. It’s great to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: Do people underestimate just how much they compete with their colleagues or maybe know really in their heart that they do, but don’t like to think about it?
RANDALL PETERSON: I think it depends on the individual. There are individuals who see the world and we know this from personality, but there are individuals who see the world as a competitive place. And what they see is competition everywhere and they tend to miss opportunities to collaborate. And those are people we speak to a lot these days trying to encourage collaboration in a way that didn’t used to be the norm in business. And then there are those who are high in agreeableness who see collaboration and collaboration opportunities everywhere, and they need to understand there is real competition and you can’t avoid it in the workplace.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And they’re the ones who are shocked when all of a sudden that agreeable colleague that they’ve been working together with turns out to backstab them in their view.
RANDALL PETERSON: Absolutely. They’re the ones who see the world in this very cooperative way. Everybody should work together. We work together to make the organization better, to be successful. And then they find that they’re in… Whether they like it or not, they find themselves in competition over a promotion, over pay, over a million other things that happen in the workplace and they try to avoid it. But at the end of the day, you can’t.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. You wrote in your article that there are dangers in all workplace relationships, not just those where you’re competing with a colleague, but when you’re happily collaborating with somebody. And by the same token then does it mean that competition maybe isn’t all bad either?
RANDALL PETERSON: Right. We’ve gone through an era in which competition was everything, and we’ve really moved hard away from that. And competition at this point is definitely out of favor. And so I just think we’ve gone from one extreme and now we’re kind of heading in the other extreme. And the reality is this place in the middle where you have to be strategic and think about when should I collaborate and when should I cooperate and why.
CURT NICKISCH: And those relationships, how you relate to somebody can also change over time too.
RANDALL PETERSON: Yeah. And that’s the other thing. You’re absolutely right. That relationships change over time. And you may have set up a really comfortable relationship, really putting your lot in with somebody at work, who you really get on with, who you really like, who you believe shares interest with you. And something starts to change for whatever reason. If you’re not paying attention to that, you could find that person who you’ve essentially really gone hard in with maybe is not entirely on your side. They may throw you under a bus at some point. So you always have to be vigilant, careful, thoughtful of even with people that you feel completely comfortable with, just making sure that things are not changing.
CURT NICKISCH: You lay out five sort of key areas on this spectrum from conflict at one end to collaboration at the other, in the middle there, maximum possible independence, sort of thinking of your colleagues as neighbors, more than coworkers. But you also have spaces that are sort of towards conflict, which is competition, having rivals or towards collaboration where it’s cooperation with friends, but also keeping a little bit of distance there. It sounds like there’s no single point on that spectrum that you think is the best place to be.
RANDALL PETERSON: Correct. Kristen and I have long kind of argued that there is no kind of perfect place to be. Each relationship and each situation is going to be different. The important message is to really think about it and to act accordingly. And even there, we have the extremes, right? Which are extreme collaboration or extreme conflict. It’s life or death. Then we’ve identified a couple of stops, as you say. One that’s really competition on the one side and cooperation on the other. But there are actually spaces in between here. As you move towards a more cooperative relationship, I might cooperate with something with you on something very minor. Then as I build up, I might go a little further and a little further, and I get to that station that we’re calling cooperation there.
We often like to talk also about natural metaphors. We always talk about things like a cow will walk through the field and kick up some insects. Cooperation is, the birds come along. They have a meal. Now there’s no damage done to the cow. So are they happy to cooperate and let others benefit as a result of what they’re doing, for example?
But then we may cooperate a little bit more, more things. Eventually, you work your way up to full-on collaboration, where you really put yourself and your interests in with others. Don’t think of it as only five stops there. Think of it as a full-on spectrum or range of relationships from one extreme to the other.
CURT NICKISCH: Okay. With this realization that there’s a spectrum here. Right? How do you recommend somebody start thinking about this kind of gray area? I mean, does it make sense to sit and sort of map out your workplace relationships and put them on the spectrum?
RANDALL PETERSON: It literally does. There are those who look at it and the mistake people make oftentimes is it’s positive or it’s negative. It’s not. There’s a range of relationships in here. And in fact, if I’m not sure whether I should collaborate and cooperate with you, some people choose independence. I want to be separate from everybody else here in the workplace. I do my work. I don’t bother anybody. I pass my work over to somebody else, try to remain independent from other people. And people will think that’s a kind of perfect and wonderful place, but oftentimes it’s the worst place because you give up relationships with the people around you, and it means you miss opportunities. You’re no longer in the network of what’s going on around you.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s interesting, right? It should seem like you’re hitting the happy medium there, and you’re actually doing none of anything.
RANDALL PETERSON: Exactly. And one of the things we know for sure, whether you’re competing with others or cooperating with others that having and managing relationships matter. So if you want to absent yourself from all relationships, you’re essentially checking out of the organization and you might be able to survive for a while, with people who continue to boss, maybe who says I wish you good luck. And I will kind of make amends for you and, or excuses for you and relationships. But you’ll look like the person who won’t work with other people, who won’t engage with others, so people don’t share anything with you.
CURT NICKISCH: If someone is blatantly competing with you and maybe you are at odds or see yourself as adversaries because you might both be up for the same promotion, for instance eventually, how would you recommend approaching that?
RANDALL PETERSON: Well, if you really and truly are in direct competition, you need to be thoughtful about, for example, whether you go head on with somebody else. You might go head on with someone else if you are confident that you can win. Oftentimes, it’s not clear at all. You know you need to stand your ground, make a stand for your particular point, but you don’t know whether you can, as it were, beat the other party. Again, if you’re in that kind of a situation, the planning might be, well, who else do I work with in order to … I collaborate with other people or I cooperate with other people, and we take that person on as a group rather than an individual. So who else is this person implicitly in conflict with or in competition with?
CURT NICKISCH: That’s a strategy of calling out that behavior, making it a little more institutional, and trying to change it that way.
RANDALL PETERSON: Yeah, and working as a team, working with others, in order to beat back the competition. You might also want to think about what actions you can take that will put the person who’s in competition with you or conflict with you on notice that you know, that you’re willing to fight, without a direct confrontation right here and right now. So you might find a way. For example, if somebody is picking through, say, your clients in order to get that promotion because they’re trying to build their portfolio, be willing to say, “Okay, well, if I go directly after that person, they’re going to confront me. Do I have enough friends and colleagues to help me? Yes or no?”
Maybe one of the things I do is actually start to think about, “Well, what are that other person’s interests? At what point do I confront some of those interests, even if I don’t confront the individual very directly?” If you’re truly in some kind of conflict, they’re going to notice that. Sometimes that’s a good way of saying, “Look, there are lots of things I could do here.” Basically, what you’re hoping for is to reach a point at which you have a degree of both parties work for what they believe in without the direct head-to-head conflict. Maybe that’s the best you can get.
What people like to do, of course, is they want to go immediately to independence. I’m just going to put up a wall between me and that other person. That person has attacked me in a meeting, has done things that are I believe to be bullying or inappropriate or unfair. Independence essentially doesn’t deal with it. I think if I’m going to be independent, but the problem is if you try to fix it by independence, you look like the one unwilling to engage with the other party in any way. That can make you look small.
CURT NICKISCH: All of a sudden you’re the bad –
RANDALL PETERSON: You’re the bad guy now. That’s that false belief that independence is going to solve all your problems. Some people are definitely one or definitely the other. You look at the other side. I’m more of a collaborative guy, my instinct, and so when I get confronted by somebody who’s really in direct conflict with me or competition with me, my core instinct is to either run away or shut down. One of the things I’ve had to learn is that that’s actually not helpful, not helpful for me and not helpful for the organizations in which I’ve worked.
CURT NICKISCH: Well, to hear you talk about looking for opportunities to collaborate or at least understand a competitor, for some people, it just still feels unnatural because you just feel like the other person is up to no good. You are grinning through your teeth pretending to work with somebody, but really know that person is a competitor for whom you have great respect. That feels like a phony mindset to some people.
RANDALL PETERSON: Yeah. It can feel that way if you’re inclined differently. On the other hand, for those who believe in competition, whose instinct is competition, that gets their energy going, and you need to take some inspiration from that. That’s why competition for many years in the world of business was highly revered because those are the people who when the going gets tough, it motivates them. If they’re going to be tough, I’m going to be tougher. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to do more. There can be real truth to that. Particularly in certain circumstances, it can bring out … If we think sports, for example, a lot of sports follow exactly that model. It brings out-
CURT NICKISCH: That’s if you have the level playing field though. Right?
RANDALL PETERSON: Well that, and therein lies the big issue. I completely agree because when you don’t have a level playing field … That’s what I was trying to get at with my first comment. Sometimes you level the playing field by bringing other people around you, especially if your instincts are to collaborate. How do I collaborate with a group of people in order to take on this particular conflict?
CURT NICKISCH: Well, let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum, where you are really collaborating with somebody and collaborate well. There are dangers in that situation, as you talked about. How do you start looking for … This is a weird thing to say, maybe, but how do you start looking for places to compete or be a little more of a rival?
RANDALL PETERSON: Yeah. Collaboration feels comfortable. We feel like, “Oh, I can relax. My interests are these people’s interests, and I can just blend in with everybody else. We’re one big happy family.”
CURT NICKISCH: And we’re all going to get the same amount of credit when the project gets approved or moves forward or whatever.
RANDALL PETERSON: Exactly. But of course, that is oftentimes not the case. To what extent … And the thing to be looking out for is what are the interests of the rest of the people who you are in collaboration with? Do those interests continue to be completely aligned to yours, or has something fundamental changed? Maybe the way we evaluate people has changed, or maybe something else has come up, and because the situation has changed, it’s not clear that these people have so much in common with me that they did before. And it’s just being aware that that can happen and not just relax into a collaboration and assume it’s never going to change.
CURT NICKISCH: Where do you think the biggest surprises come when people are in this collaboration space?
RANDALL PETERSON: I think the biggest surprises that happen here are those of changing interests. Surely you’ve had a best friend, someone you’re really close to, and for whatever reason, things start to change, and they essentially start to drift away from you. That’s painful, to see someone who really knows you choose not to engage with you so much or want some distance between you and them. And so what we’ll … Our instincts tends to be to grab hold and to pull in closer.
And yet, if they’re drifting away, grabbing them, pulling them closer may or may not bring you actual return. It might bring somebody physically closer to you for a bit, but in fact actually works to push people away. And then at that point, they’re acting as though they’re continuing to be collaborative, but they’re actually perhaps not. And that’s actually the worst position to be in, when you’re not realizing, perhaps, what can come next.
CURT NICKISCH: Randall, do you think people should strive to be at one place on the spectrum? Like, if generally you’re a more collaborative person, should you just try to be in the cooperative friends mode knowing that things can change and shift, or do you think that each relationship should be in a different place on the spectrum depending on the circumstances?
RANDALL PETERSON: Each of us is going to have a place on this spectrum where we’re most comfortable. There are people who are more cooperative or more competitive. What I would say is the places that are consistent with our individual personality and set points are the ones that we’re going to be naturally good at. And so if we can find environments, organizations that where that’s the dominant mode of interacting, you’re going to be happier. You’re going to be more effective. You’re going to be better.
The reality is of course that there’s no workplace that’s entirely one or the other or at any one particular place here. And so you’re going to need to be able to flex and survive and operate kind of across the spectrum. And you can’t run away and hide, and pretend that independence for example is going to fix all the problems. You do actually need to think carefully, be as dispassionate as you can because especially if it’s on the other end from where your instincts lie, that’s going to feel pretty uncomfortable. And you’re likely to feel a bit emotional about it.
So how can I step back, stand aside from my emotion, look at this as objectively as I can, and strategize for how to both survive but thrive in that other environment that doesn’t come easily.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. What’s the role of the manager here? Is it to help people get along better or promote healthy competition or what?
RANDALL PETERSON: Great question. And I think the role of a manager here is … There’s two parts. One is, as a manager, you’re still have lots of relationships, so this applies to you. But if you’re managing a group of people, it’s being aware of, first of all, what you’re incentivizing. Are you putting people in direct conflict or competition with each other?
There’s a lot out there of we manage individuals within the workplace, and then we tell them they should cooperate or collaborate. If we were really serious about collaboration, cooperation in the workplace, we would change some of how we manage people because we’d have much more focus on things like a performance criteria that was, “What have you done for other people in the past year?”, not just, “What have you achieved against your targets?”
I’m a little skeptical of how far the collaboration stuff will go for that reason, unless, perhaps, we start really changing incentives. And I think managers don’t always think through, “If I manage people in this way and I’m focused on did they meet their targets, that, by definition, that creates a lot of attempts at independence, probably competition, especially when it comes to things like, say, pay raises.” Did you meet your targets or not meet your targets? Not very much in terms of cooperation and collaboration.
So we spend a lot of time talking about it to encourage people to see that there are opportunities in cooperation, but it doesn’t fully shift the dial in that direction. And so I’d like to see managers be more aware of the behaviors that they’re actually incentivizing by what they’re actually … how they’re managing other people and what they’re doing.
CURT NICKISCH: What would you recommend somebody who’s a manager or leader to do, just to start thinking about what kind of office dynamic, what place on the spectrum they’d like their teammates to be?
RANDALL PETERSON: I hope that managers would be able to look at something like this and say, “Right. I want people to be, say, doing a lot of cooperation and collaboration. How do I do that? I’m going to talk about purpose, things that happen together. And I’m going to, when they have control over things like performance reviews, “I’m going to focus on other things that include things like how much did you help other people as a part of that.” So, if I think about my own school, we have a performance criteria, which is about internal contribution. What have you done for the school in the last year? That encourages cooperation. That’s what it’s meant to do, and that’s exactly what it does. And so I want managers to be thoughtful about making that connection.
And then there are times in which I’ve got a group of people here, when it comes to things like sales, and you can very quickly measure. They have a tendency to go whole hog into conflict: “I’m going to offer some kind of incentive for everybody to achieve.” When in fact, if you really think about it, I want some competition. Okay? So not the extreme version in conflict. But I also want to encourage our best salespeople to share best practice with some of our new people, for example. And how do I do that? If they’re asking themselves those kind of questions, I think we’re on the right track.
CURT NICKISCH: To go back to a central idea in this article, you say that the people who thrive most in workplaces is where they know when to be competitive and when to be collaborative. Does that just come from experience?
RANDALL PETERSON: Yeah. The prize is really being able to… I always talk about this. If you learn to write and you tend to write with one hand, and then situations change and you have to learn to write with the other hand; now, the first time you try it out, it’s pretty rough, right? You work really hard at it. You really think about it. And you can even practice this, signing your name with the hand that you don’t always use. And it doesn’t look very good, and it doesn’t come off very well, and you really struggle to do it. But the more you practice it, the more times you actually try it over and over with the support, hopefully, of a decent boss, or certainly decent colleagues who can help and support you, get a little feedback about it; it gets easier. It gets better. And it may not be the thing that comes completely naturally to you, but you know how to do it.
And just like learning to write with the other hand, can you do it? Yes, you can. Now, is it easy? No. But with practice, with dedication, it becomes something that’s within your repertoire and you can do it. So there’s no substitute for, instead of running away from the colleague who interacts in this way that’s very different from your instinct, to lean in, lean in a way that doesn’t put you at risk, but allows you to practice, get better. And so next time you’re going to know how to handle it even better. So, that’s how most people I see learn. It’s kind of on-the-job training with some support from a good coach.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. Randall, I really appreciate you coming on the show to talk about this. This has been really great.
RANDALL PETERSON: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Randall Peterson, founding director of The Leadership Institute, and a professor at London Business School. Together with Kristin Behfar, he wrote the HBR article “When to Cooperate with Colleagues and When to Compete.” It’s in the March/April 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review and at hbr.org.
To learn more about treating your colleagues as competitive friends, check out IdeaCast episode with Wharton professor Adam Grant. It’s on how having a rival improves performance. That’s episode 682.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.