It starts as soon as we enter the education system, perhaps even younger. But from a very early age, it is drilled into us that competitive comparison with our peers – as opposed to collaboration and cooperation – is both the means to achieve and to measure success.
Things have changed a little now, but when I was at school, your status in class was defined in each subject by what amounted to a league table – performance ranked from one to 30 after every test, made available for everyone to see, with the idea presumably being this would inspire everyone to compete tooth and nail to be ‘top of the class’.
What is supposedly a more enlightened education system nowadays has by no means shaken off all the trappings of competitive culture. The government encourages it by publishing its own meaningless list of school league tables every year, giving license to the most competitive parents to do battle over catchment areas to send their children to the best schools.
And what is one of the worst academic sins you can commit in any classroom? The ‘no copying’ rule has been a feature of educational discipline through the ages, an anti-collaborative dictum that as much as anything else indoctrinates us to believe work should be independent, siloed and competitive.
Putting the personal over the collective
Taken forward into the workplace, of course, we spend our lives copying. Why on Earth would you make up the wording of a contract from scratch when there are millions of sound examples in existence to use as a template? If you were asked to make a pitch or a presentation, why would you start with a blank Powerpoint deck when you know your colleague did something along similar lines that went down a treat just a few weeks ago?
Yet that is not to say we fully appreciate the value of collaboration and cooperation in the workplace – far from it, in fact. Business in a market economy is by definition a competitive undertaking, in the bluntest terms a battle for the wallets of potential customers. But even within companies and firms, where the overarching focus should surely be on having everyone pulling together towards the same goals, that deep-seated collective competitive instinct holds sway.
In a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to make derogatory comments to opposing fans in the name of ‘encouraging’ your team to win, where winning lotteries and high-value game shows is viewed as a legitimate life aspiration, where children have tantrums over losing computer games – should we be surprised if people are prepared to put their own interests first and walk all over their so-called colleagues in underhand ways in a bid to gain that promotion?
Should we be surprised that different departments within the same organisation still operate in completely separate silos, viewing each other with mutual mistrust as they vy for the favours of the executive team, effectively competing to achieve the same ends?
Lessons from IT
There is at least now a recognition that a more cooperative culture at work is ultimately in the best interests of business. Collaboration has become a big buzzword, mainly because of the arrival on the scene of ‘collaboration tools’ – software applications that are sold on the promise that they will help your employees work together more efficiently and effectively.
But the world of technology has actually opened many eyes to the value and importance of collaboration on a deeper level. In the fields of systems architecture and IT infrastructure, the way IT is organised for business purposes has undergone a fundamental shift away from closed, siloed organisation of assets – different platforms and networks to perform different tasks – towards open, integrated systems where the underlying principle is that everything can communicate and share freely with everything else.
There is one extremely good reason for this change – it cuts out waste and duplication, and makes IT operations across the most complex systems much more efficient. And as businesses slowly adopt this approach for their IT systems, there is the dawning realisation that the same principles can be applied right across their business, including how their employees interact and work together.
There is a long way to go. We all know the old cliche about their being no ‘I’ in team, but many people are still inclined to believe another old saw, ‘I’m better off doing it myself.’ From the point of view of improved productivity and efficiency – two staging posts towards the ultimate goal of every business, making more profit – that is not true. But reversing a cultural attitude we are immersed in from infancy is a major undertaking.