This is one of the most discussed questions at Leadership workshops I have conducted in diverse settings from educational institutions to corporate events. While there is a lot of talk about being collaborative at work, the current workplace environment largely feeds on competition.

Controlled and targeted competition is a key driver of innovation and future-looking strategies. It also fosters continuous improvement and lean operations. However, when taken too far, it manifests as unhealthy politics, unnecessary conflict, favoritism, fear, high turnover rates and an uneven risk taking.

It is time we stopped making organizations into a rough and tumble competitive sports playground.

Instead, we need to enable associates to discover the best in themselves and then use it to bring out the best in others.

Let’s begin by understanding the anatomy of competition and collaboration as its relates to workplace success.

Competition vs Collaboration: A case of scarcity vs abundance


Whether it is an individual competitive sport, a competitive exam or a promotion, competition always results from scarcity. The goal of competition is to prove oneself superior over the rest with a set of predefined criteria in exchange of a tangible reward. It requires physical, intellectual and emotional participation at an individual level honed towards establishing superiority over another.

Competition can arise due to natural scarcity or it can be induced, like in sports- where there is only one gold medal to be won, or forced ranking in annual reviews at workplaces. It is the scarcity that creates excitement and the significance of winning.

In an organization, inducing scarcity of opportunities allows selection of the fittest set of individuals for an existing competitive culture.

Controlled and targeted competition is a key driver of innovation and future-looking strategies. It also fosters continuous improvement and lean operations.


Collaboration is the act of co-creating, leading to an inherent sense of abundance. Since the winner is a co-created idea, decision or process, the best of all those participating can be expressed. It requires physical, intellectual and emotional participation in a group setting honed towards open and honest exchange of ideas. It requires investing in trust building, proficient decision making, navigating conflict and instilling compassion. In this case, the team is co-creating and hence enhancing accountability. Rewards are typically team outcome based.

The Balancing Act

Both collaboration and competition are essential and balancing tools for an organization. Controlled competition does instill performance checks and balances, however, if solely used for that purpose, can manifest as unhealthy politics, unnecessary conflict, favoritism, fear, high turnover rates and an imbalanced risk taking. On the other hand, excessive emphasis on collaboration can lead to social fatigue, group think, insufficient individual accountability, and uneven distribution of workload, especially if the organizational culture and training elements are not mature.

In the current age of fast paced corporate cultures, the pressure to stay competitive in the market is acute. Competitive individual professional growth is inadvertently defined by a set of behaviors as of existing leaders who have. This is natural since the pressure to stay competitive demands that the selection process follows what has worked in the past.

The need for Transformation

Once a company lays out the strategic roadmap, success lies in the hands of managers and teams that implement the strategy. Cross-functional teams with the right technical acumen are at the heart of successfully implementing strategy and sustaining success. Keeping up with the rapid pace of implementation to ensure business success can be draining on teams and managers alike. It is time for workplace transformation for long term productivity and engagement.

Though many changes may need to be made at organizational policies like finding alternatives to forced ranking performance indicators, creating the right metrics to measure development and reward, implementing a coaching culture and creating a top-down culture of transparency and respect, there are some things we can do to begin making an impact. Let’s start with the self. Here’s how we can bring a collaborative environment in a competitive world:

Remind yourself of your strengths, and then, use them to bring out the strengths in others, instead of using them to show yourself one notch up. Since strengths based activities are meant to energize, it will be a win-win.

1. Start your day by being your own mindset coach: Know that everyone around you is a work in progress. You are also no exception to this. Whether you are a team lead, manager or an individual contributor, start your day knowing that you are co-creating and co-learning.

2. Identify and Recognize genuinely humble leaders: There is much talk about servant leadership. It is critical to remember that humble and service oriented leaders may be difficult to spot. Humility is often misinterpreted at lack of confidence or ability to stand up for oneself. Work on fine-tuning your perception to be able to identify them. Genuinely humble leaders don’t make it all about themselves.

3. Make feedback more meaningful: It all begins with trust. It is not the style in which you present the feedback, but the intention behind the feedback and the quality of relationship you have with the person receiving the feedback. If the relationship is trust based, you will never find the need to “practice” giving feedback and polishing your message. The intention automatically sets the tone.

4. Strive hard to assess and reassess your team’s processes on a regular basis: Are your dashboards, meetings, metrics measures, communication updates working for the people or are people struggling to work for the processes?

5. End your day by being your own mindset coach: Use self-discovery, self-awareness and self-care to assess if you have made your day a joyful experience for yourself and everyone around you. After all, you are in the workplace not just to make a living, but to make the quality of living a better experience. On an average, we spend about 40% of our waking hours at work or at least thinking about work. The quality of time spent there determines our health, wealth and wellbeing!