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Can Harmony Hurt Team Performance?

August 28, 2011

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird famously viewed contests against each other as far more significant than games against other teams or individual players, their relative levels of accomplishment being a daily preoccupation. “When the new schedule would come out each year, I’d grab it and circle the Boston games”, Magic Johnson declared. “To me, it was The Two and the other 80.” Similarly, Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird admitted: “The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn’t care about anything else.” Rivalries, naturally, between opposing teams are part of the game, but what about rivalries within teams? Are they something to be eradicated in the interest of fostering collaboration, harmonious relationships and thus team performance? Or is competition something to be exploited even at the risk of friendship?

Take a look at this: the brutal reflections of Jake Cornelius, a Stanford and Cambridge graduate, currently training with the US Rowing Team in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, and a member of the 2007 Boat Race winning Cambridge crew. His sporting achievements, good for his universities and his country, have generated casualties, not least among his team members. Worse yet, it is something he is keenly aware of. Following is an insightful excerpt from an interview with Jake:

“After my failure …I decided to focus on showing the chief coach and squad how good I could be … I also desperately wanted the squad to see that I was working hard, but at the same time I didn’t want [my two closest competitors on the team] Colin and Oli to see me working hard because then they might start working hard too, and I didn’t want them to find out until it was too late. And so they wouldn’t feel threatened until it was time to threaten them on the river, though I did feel badly about this because I like Colin and Oli and feel sad about having to compete with them for a place in the crew, Oli especially as we were really good friends at the beginning of the season, whereas now it’s tough to act normal around him when I’ve spent so much time targeting him as the guy I have to beat … The fact that they were my friends meant that I knew things about them that could be perceived as insecurities that could work to my advantage, but I really didn’t want to exploit them — I mean even in my own thoughts — but the mind games that I played with myself were so intense and I wanted so badly to get inside their heads and let them know I was the alpha male; it’s so confusing to mentally attack your friends — it drives you insane — but sanity seemed like a small price to pay for something I wanted so badly.”

Few organizations pit their people against each other in quite the same fashion. However, team members often compete with each other for access to resources, promotion opportunities, status, or a share of the bonus pot. In professional service firms in particular, career trajectories are relatively tightly structured from admission as a trainee to making full partner. There will be a number of candidates from different service functions who are encouraged to work together in their progression through the ranks in the knowledge that the selection process for partner admission is highly competitive with a high probability that a colleague will take one of the prized partnership slots ahead of you. Jack Welch was fiercely defensive of the rivalry his forced ranking had generated within General Electric. Legend has it that a group of consultants, when expressing an interest in dismantling his rank-and-yank system, were summarily cautioned not to mess around with it — because he had worked hard to get this level of competition between the top managers, and he wanted it to stay that way.

Collaboration is good. So is competition. But where does this leave us in managing teams effectively? Here are some useful contributions from scholarship:

1. When competition is stifled for the sake of promoting interpersonal harmony, it does not magically vanish but simply moves off the radar screen. This is far worse: team members continue to compete but now do so by belittling the efforts of those around them instead of bettering their own. Here’s a health check: What do people say about each other over the water cooler? And what does this tell you about the nature of competition within the team?

2. Harmony is far more likely to be the consequence, and not the cause, of team performance. Worse yet, the last thing you want is for your best people to self-censor their input for fear of disrupting team spirit. The real question is not whether your team feels harmonious, but whether it is safe psychologically. Ask yourself: Is the best way to raise the game a heart-to-heart conversation within the team or to give them a genuine challenge, potentially something to feel good about collectively?

3. What can feel dysfunctional need not be dysfunctional. Jake’s effort at beating two squad members for a place in the crew may have felt uncomfortable but ultimately helped raise both his, and their, game, and helped create a faster boat. Highly effective teams leave scope for rivalry. Ask yourself: Are we at risk of mistaking what feels dysfunctional for what is actually working?

Mark de Rond is a Cambridge University-based ethnographer. He is writing a book on teams for Harvard Business Review Press. Adrian Moorhouse is an Olympic Gold Medalist and Managing Director of Lane4, performance development consultancy. Matt Rogan is a Board Director of Lane4 as well as the European Sponsorship Association.

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