5 Strategies to Effectively Integrate Collaboration and Competition

Collaboration has certainly become a buzzword in business circles — and with good reason. The ability to work together with both internal and external teams will make or break a business.

But some see collaboration and competition as two opposing ends of a spectrum; you get one or the other. Fortunately, it’s not an either/or. Building a successful collaborative culture, while maintaining competitive success, requires business leaders to understand the meanings and advantages (and even disadvantages) of both styles, and what these mean to business success. Broken down to their most simple forms, we might say competition equals success, and collaboration equals buy-in.

As recently as a decade ago, the notion of collaboration meant subordinates did what the boss told them to do. As work culture evolves, today’s business leaders continue to discover the importance of collaboration as part of the new culture. The heightened productivity levels achieved through joining forces and expanding abilities is key to creating a competitive edge.

Dr. Sunnie Giles, a leadership expert, delves into how neuroscience backs these work culture claims. Her recent Harvard Business Review article will be an important source for us to consider as we ask: How can a competitive culture become more collaborative?

To create an authentic, collaboratively competitive culture, consider these strategies:

Lead by Example, Listen with Curiosity

Curiosity doesn’t often fit into our busy schedules, nor is it a stated value in many organizations. However, if we don’t take the time to listen openly to our employees, we may lose out on their best ideas. By combining attentive listening with a team-focused leadership approach, you can create a collaborative employee experience.

Dr. Giles suggests that “to encourage learning among employees, leaders must first ensure that they are open to learning (and changing course) themselves…Let people know that all ideas will be considered [and] a greater diversity of ideas will emerge.” Employees look to leaders for cues on work culture and expectations.

Recognize Individuals’ Contributions, Show Positive Impacts

Employee loyalty and commitment develop from individual opportunities, growth, and engagement. Creating a culture where employees feel their contributions count, and that they impact the success of the overall organization, will result in greater job satisfaction, lower turnover, and enduring loyalty. “If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, support their training and promotion, and go to bat to sponsor their important projects,” explains Dr. Giles. Recognize their contributions. Show them how their work fits into the big picture, and how they can impact the organization’s overall success. Because company growth is essential in a competitive market, leaders need to capitalize and encourage an employee’s ability to lead.

Don’t Micromanage, Create Teaching Moments

Consider how much you can accomplish when you truly trust your team. If they successfully handle their responsibilities, it frees up your time to pursue other important priorities. Dr. Giles explains research repeatedly shows empowered teams are more productive and proactive, provide better customer service, and show higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment to their team and organization.

When delegating, set clear guidelines and expectations, establish a specific free time, and then step away. By empowering your employees, you encourage them to take ownership and eliminate time spent monitoring. Be patient with the process, evolve the results, and you will see improvements in your execution… and theirs!

Check Your Body Language, Go for Warmth and Strength

As business leaders, we may be able to recall what we said in meetings or when we talked with employees, but what did we really say? “When you want to encourage collaboration, you’d be wise to replace those status cues with warmer ones,” says contributor Carol Kinsey Goman.

Your body language should make employees feel valued, respected, and included. So, relax! Be open to conversation. Goman suggests facing people directly when talking, and give them your full attention. Also mirroring the person’s stance or body language encourages connection and engagement.

Dr. Giles shares these practical tips: “Smile at people, call them by name, and remember their interests and family members’ names.” Additionally, mirroring the individual’s stance or body language encourages connection and engagement. At most organizations, showing competitive edge through strength is important, and this effect can be magnified by likewise showing a collaborative warmth.

Understand it Will Be a Process, Be as Open and Trusting as Possible

We hear a lot about the employees’ desire for openness with company operations. They want to be a part of the company’s success — It’s human nature. But, if that’s really to work, the employee must know what they are a part of.

“We believe that a collaborative culture is based on openness…and building trust,” says Tony Vlahos, Chief Marketing Officer for “It also focuses its energy on the search for solutions to challenges and leveraging opportunities rather than on placing blame.”

Dr. Giles validates this point, explaining that negative and closed cultures will destroy innovation. She says, “While managing through fear generates stress, which impairs higher brain function, the quality of work is vastly different when we are compelled by appreciation.” Building an open and trusting culture is a process, but brings a worthwhile return on investment.

Most importantly, a collaboratively competitive culture sends the message to your employees that everyone has a voice and their knowledge impacts the operation and success of the overall business.



Marcy Fetzer

Marcy is a Principal Consultant for DecisionWise where she is responsible for leading a consulting team. She specializes in organizational development, human behavior, conflict management strategies, business communication and interpersonal relationships. Marcy completed a PhD from the University of Utah. Her doctoral work focused on the effect of dysfunctional communication and transformative conflict mediation within traditional organizational frameworks.

  • You are correct, “managing through fear generates stress, which impairs higher brain function, the quality of work is vastly different when we are compelled by appreciation.” People tend to clam up with an authoritative leader. If you want your people to open up, lead them with heart. It will be an effective motivator – this will help in aligning your vision and communication with your people. Once good communication has been established, trust will eventually grow.

    -Brooke, Tenfold

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