Business is based on competition, and it is the choice between competitors that benefits consumers by keeping prices down. Monopolies can charge whatever the market will bear, which is why most governments have mechanisms to control monopolies.
The problem with competitiveness is that it is the opposite of cooperativeness, and it will inevitably engender self-serving behaviour. At the heart of law is the familiar and universal principle of ‘doing unto others…’, in other words, controlling selfishness. The law has its work cut out: selfishness is so universal it seems to be part of human nature. Many would argue from an evolutionary imperative, claiming that it is all about survival, but human beings have surely transcended living by tooth and claw, and it doesn’t take much reflection to see that the root of all misery is acting selfishly. This is not an argument against competition, but rather against the attitude that can sometimes inform it. Sport is a perfect example: it is based on competition, but how do people react when they don’t win? If it is with petulance and anger, that’s being a bad sport; a good sport is passionate about the game, and doesn’t resent anyone else winning. People will often say it isn’t the winning but the taking part, but how many practice what they preach?
The costs of competition are not only between organisations and companies but also between people and departments within companies. This is how the so-called ‘silo effect’ comes about. Initially, when a company is small there is a sense of cohesion and working for a common goal. In these circumstances there is a natural cooperativeness, but as the company grows there is greater and greater competition between individuals for the scarce resource of promotion and the rise in status and pay that it brings.
The paradox of competition is that while on the one hand it makes people work more efficiently to enhance their chances, it also hampers performance. People start to withhold information, which leaves others at a disadvantage and limits the human resources available to solve problems. It also creates an ethos of secrecy and paranoia that serves only the secretive and the paranoid, and those who don’t hold these distorted values are then seen as dummies to be taken advantage of. Since there is a vested interest in serving one’s own ends someone else also needs to be blamed for anything that goes wrong. A culture of blame and fault-finding gets established, and these trends characterise not just individuals but also different departments within companies. Competitiveness is a double-edged sword, and when it is wielded as ‘me’ opposed to ‘you’ and ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ it leads to unhappy people locked into silos.
This is self-evidently not a useful or productive way to run an organisation, and it is imperative to put in place as many antidotes to the silo effect as possible. A useful starting point is to not use the words at all – if people keep referring to silo effects they’ll appear to be a way of explaining things, and will become self-fulfilling prophecies. A more direct approach is to use training strategies that directly challenge separateness. Teamwork programmes are often aimed at doing so, but to succeed they must inevitably create uncomfortable and challenging training sessions that need to be handled sensitively and competently. Removing or avoiding silo effects is an explicit aim of our Challenge of Change Dream Team programme, which is certainly very challenging, and benefits significantly from my clinical experience. But while the process is a difficult one, the subsequent benefits are concomitantly large. Our Challenge of Change Resilience programme provides the personal skills for individuals to become more adaptive to the changes that are the one constant in life, and combining the programmes provides a particularly powerful way of helping companies move from being either poor or just good to being great.