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Is Competitive Spirit Killing Your Workplace? Podcast with Dr. Margaret Heffernan

Does Your Workplace Value Competition Or Collaboration? 

BY Michelle McQuaid

When it comes to getting ahead in your organization, is it a case of survival of the fittest, or the survival of the kindest?  While most organizations are fuelled by a fierce competitive spirit that drives us to work faster, harder and better than others, studies suggest that over time competition undermines our performance.

“The most productive workplaces are characterized by trust and helpfulness,” explained Dr. Margaret Heffernan when I interviewed her recently. “We do much better supporting each other.”

For example, in an effort to understand how natural selection plays out practically, evolutionary biologist William Muir investigated how to breed the most productive chickens. Seeking to increase egg production – the marker of a successful flock – Muir first identified the most productive groups of hens and observed them as they bred freely. Then, as a contrast, he selected the most productive individual hens and used them for breeding the next generation of hens to see if these ‘super-hens’ would be more productive.

After six generations, Muir compared the results. The free flocks were still full of plump, fully feathered hens, and egg production had increased dramatically throughout the experiment.  But in the second group, the supposedly ‘super-hens’, after six generations, only three hens were left; the other six had been murdered.  The three survivors were nearly bare of feathers, having plucked each other mercilessly.

Muir concluded that the productivity of the few had been achieved by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

“We don’t survive well as super-chickens pecking everybody to death,” explained Margaret.

So how can you improve trust and helpfulness in your organization?

Margaret suggests:

  • Providing a safe space – your workplace can improve to the degree that your people feel safe and trusted. Instead of using competition or fear of job tenure, evidence suggests that people who work together get much better over time, so that you can gain more productivity, commitment, and engagement by retaining your people and creating a safe environment. If you feel that you need to say certain things to please the people above and keep quiet about other things because it’s just too dangerous to speak up, you’ll stop raising real concerns or worries. Although companies are often shocked by big problems, these often started out as small issues that people knew about but didn’t share because they were afraid. Rather than having a culture of ‘silence in the boardroom, violence in the hallway’ try to build psychologically safe spaces where people can talk openly and respectfully about issues.
  • Growing ideas – ideas aren’t born in a kind of single moment of blinding insight. They generally start off pretty vague and then become outstanding through explorative discussion and vigorous debate. Create space for your people to feel safe to say: “I’ve got an idea, but it’s not fully baked yet.” The ensuing questions or arguments can then be a gift that taps into the intellectual capital that you’ve invested in hiring. Encourage people to guide their contributions by asking: “Is there anything you could say or do that would make this idea or this discussion better?”
  • Institutionalizing dissent – rather than the usual dissent around things like food and parking, encourage institutional dissent around things that matter such as strategy, product, services, and culture. One way to do this is to assign dissent roles to people such as someone to look at the alternatives to a proposal, another to consider what experiments you could do to test some of your ideas, another could look at what comparable industries or organizations are doing, and another role to consider if you were a start-up or disrupting your business, how would you do that? In this way you’re giving permission for people to test and stretch the thinking within your organization, to ensure much better decision making and lower levels of risk.
  • Building social capital – make regular times for your people to just talk to each other about whatever they want to talk about. While you may think that this sounds inefficient as you get to know others better, you’ll trust others more and share more information more quickly that can help ideas grow. For example, one study found that when synchronized coffee breaks were introduced in one organization, profits increased by $15 million, and employee satisfaction increased by 10%. Research has also found by creating quiet windows of time when you can focus on a task without interruption, your productivity can increase by 60%, and you’ll be more willing to help others outside this window.

What can you do to choose trust and collaboration over competition?

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