A few weeks ago, our team was in a meeting discussing a collaborative project and one of my teammates made a comment that was enlightening. It’s been stuck in my head ever since. My teammates’ comment was made regarding a surge forward in deliverables completed during the week. He stated, “That’s the difference when someone stops throwing down tripwires and starts shining lights on them.” The comment was effortlessly insightful. We often take for granted how seamlessly our team unit works. When involving others outside of our team in collaboration efforts, we notice it slows us down.
I’ve always been a fan of clever wordplay, but this spoke more to me than an offhand comment. So much success depends on not being passive with your team. Being an active, engaged, and supportive team member, focused on achieving goals together means your co-workers are not your competition. They are key players in a team effort that needs everyone to achieve success.
One third of our lives is spent in the work environment (Gettysburg College, 2022). That’s still true, even if our office environment is in our bedroom, or on a rapidly converted kitchen table. One third of our life is spent with people who, through circumstance, are tied to us. Our work colleagues have a great impact on our social, emotional, and economic well-being. So how do we navigate the unique relationship dynamics with co-workers?
There is an assumption that implying a closer and more familial relationship will increase the cohesiveness of a team. It’s increasingly popular to claim co-workers are “family”. It’s simply not true. Seeing how some family dynamics work, I’m a bit grateful for that! Co-worker relationships require a bit more formality, a requirement to reign in emotional responses and think strategically about problems facing your company. They require calm, and an underlying assumption that everyone’s motivations are good (Guthridge, 2019).
This doesn’t mean strong emotional and personal connections can’t be made. The benefit of strong personal relationships at work has been shown to have a positive impact on both morale and productivity (Huang, 2019). The difference is that positive relationships at work are built by trust, cooperation, and fairness rather than family ties or shared experiences. As with any positive relationship, physiological benefits are apparent when co-workers have positive interactions.
How do you achieve an environment of collaboration, rather than competition? Consider the success of a project depends on the whole group. Deliverables are not about one individual, but the collective team. This kind of mindset can take a frank, but gentle, conversation to align perceptions with reality –we are partners in a shared goal and when we work together, we can accomplish so much more.
When expectations shift, the motivation shifts too. Rewards for success are project specific, rather than about an individual. Individual competition decreases. Research shows the behavioral effect of competition in the workplace is largely negative. Leaders who foster an environment of individual competition do their teams a disservice; lowering morale, creating conflict, and negatively impacting the company’s bottom line by reducing productivity and engagement (Huang, 2019).
What if we intentionally changed our mindset? When a co-worker does something frustrating or makes an error, let’s assume it comes from a place of good will, even if it takes us a moment to mentally reset. Higher levels of trust improve relationships, collaboration, and production (Guthridge, 2019). Let’s coach each other, foster our own expertise, communicate setbacks or frustrations, and mentor our way through conflict, rather than jumping to the conclusion that someone is sabotaging our projects. Absent a clear motive to sabotage a project, why would our co-workers do so? It doesn’t make sense.
Let’s self-reflect; are we the ones throwing down tripwires, or are we shining lights on them?
College, G. (Ed.). (2022). One third of your life is spent at work. Gettysburg College. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.gettysburg.edu/news/stories?id=79db7b34-630c-4f49-ad32-4ab9ea48e72b
Guthridge, L. (2019, October 28). How you can thrive from collaboration, not competition. Forbes. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/10/28/how-you-can-thrive-from-collaboration-not-competition-at-the-top/?sh=1331760f3401
Huang, S.-chi. (2019, July 6). When Collaborators turn into Competitors. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/motivation-matters/201906/when-collaborators-turn-competitors