Competitive tension can push you to greater success

competitive tension

We have all heard of the benefits of collaboration.  The win-win compromise and partnerships based on establishing harmonious working relationships where everyone wins. However, creating this utopic vision might not be the best thing for you, your business or your long term success. Instead of always getting along, you may need to swim against the management theorists and ensure that there is a healthy element of competitiveness, conflict and tension in your working relationships. Competitive tension is often used in procurement processes to ensure vendors deliver the best proposals, without taking advantage of the customer. While many of the principles remain the same, this blog applies the term to the everyday operations of any workplace.

Competitive Tension is a term I will use to describe a situation where two or more people have seemingly conflicting needs or agendas, but have to work collaboratively to deliver a unified product or service. It can deliver performance and outcomes that exceeds those that the individuals may set for themselves. It drives everyone to perform at a higher level.

World champion swimmer Grant Hackett tells a great story about how his coach created competitive tension in the lead up to an important race. His coach kept telling him that his main competitor had been bagging him and was publicly doubting his ability. To an incredibly competitive person like Grant this was like a red rag to a bull. He set a personal challenge to push himself to the next level.  He made every training session count and prepared mentally and physically for the showdown. Race day arrived and Grant nailed it, he hit the wall first and then signalled to his competitor that he was still number one. However, once he got out of the pool his coach confessed that he had made it all up just to get him fired up. Grant’s competitor probably still wonders why Grant was so aggressive towards him, but it provides a good example of how competitive tension can push a person beyond their limits.

For centuries innovators have valued the benefits robust and passionate debating offers. It not only stimulates more detailed thinking of the issue, it also ensures that various options and solutions are explored. After all, our democracy is built on being allowed to have an opinion and having the opportunity to share it.

True innovation is not achieved by reaching a consensus just based on popular opinion, but rather comes from opinions that often are seen as disruptive, counter intuitive or unproductive. Ignoring diverse views and opinions, possibly considered extreme, can sentence you to remain with the rest of the pack, and not move far from where you are today.

In an age where innovation and disruption are part of our daily lives, harmony and equilibrium don’t necessarily support staying in the game. A harmonious workplace relationship without tension could be a reason for serious concern, it may limit your ability to change and deliver middle of the road solutions that don’t drive the business innovation. I am not suggesting that we create a workplace that runs rampant with bullying, infighting and self-serving ‘siloed’ behaviour, rather build one based on passion, staying informed and showing mutual respect. A workplace where challenging each other to achieve their best is seen as healthy, and productive behaviours are actively encouraged.

Steve Jobs was infamous for pushing and challenging his team to achieve by making sure his products had the best in design, functionality and customer experience. From all reports there were many heated discussions and arguments that preceded any Apple product development. It is in this competitive environment where the Apple team were challenged to excel and contribute to ensure they contributed and added value to the end result.

A good example of Competitive Tension in the workplace is where a Customer Service Manager and Credit Manager must agree on the structure of a new website. The Customer Service Manager will be focused on ensuring that customers have a good customer experience when they visit the site, and that their needs will be met at the first point of contact. However, the Credit Manager will probably be more interested in how people will have their accounts managed and what payment functionality is included. They may want the payment terms and conditions on the home screen as one of the first things people see to ensure users understand their responsibilities.  This would not be considered a great customer experience.

Admittedly, both are noble positions and are in the best interests of the company. However, it’s not enough to have happy customers who just don’t pay their bills. Equally, it is important to ensure customers want to deal with your company and aren’t scared away by unreasonable credit policies. In this situation, however, if one of the managers is stronger or is more politically powerful than the other, you could end up with a solution that compromises your company’s profitability, rather than the best possible solution built around both viewpoints.

Often executives faced with such a situation will adopt a ‘fire fighting’ approach to managing productive conflict.  They will try to stamp it out immediately by making the decision themselves. However, this could be detrimental to opportunities this competitive tension provides. Instead of trying to quell the conflict, manage it to ensure that it remains productive and doesn’t become personal or vindictive.

Here are 10 things you could do to encourage healthy competitive tension in your business:

  1. Embed shared values. Ensure you have a values driven culture and operating environment that supports competitive tension.  Don’t make your working environment ‘survival of the fittest’. You must have clear values that define the rules of engagement that can be relied upon when things get a little overheated. Values must be unique to each organisation.  Ultimately, though, we all want to work in a place where trust, respect, accountability, compassion and innovation are core to the way we interact and operate. If you don’t have any values defined you can establish rules for your working group that can be used to ensure productive engagements.
  2. Leave egos at the door. This is a tough one for many people as climbing the corporate ladder is based on being noticed for delivering individual performance, but making decisions within a group is often more about listening rather than talking. By better understanding the other person’s position, you will be better able to appreciate and address their concerns.
  3. Keep a record of decisions and objections. This is important if the discussions are likely to take a bit of time. This process guarantees that you have an accurate record to rely on and also ensures people are less likely to reverse previously agreed positions. Also make sure you document the objections that are raised because they may have merit and can be used in managing any risks with the solution.
  4. Train your people to communicate and negotiate. Communication is a skill that we think is inherent in all of us, however we all have different communication styles that impact how we send and receive messages. Some people will try to avoid conflict and will as a result defer to the most vocal member. This is not healthy and you must ensure that everyone has the skills to have a say and that they must contribute.
  5. Create social activities. By developing social relationships through extracurricular activities people can get to know their co-workers and better understand their position. You are less likely to take offence from someone you shared a laugh with at a bar, and you are more likely to be willing to listen and explore their point of view.
  6. Give everyone a voice. Ensure everyone has a say by setting a rule where you are encouraged to contribute on the topic. Not everyone is great at meetings, so ensure you have multiple avenues for people to contribute. Quite often it is the quiet thinkers that come up with the best ideas, so ensure you provide them with ways to contribute before, during and after meetings.
  7. Equal accountability. Make those involved equally accountable for reaching the solution and most importantly signing it off with their support. Often a team charged with solving a solution will be made up of people from various levels within the organisation. If the organisational hierarchy is relied on within these types of meetings, then you are susceptible to having one person’s opinion override the others.
  8. Make the process fun. Laughter is a great tonic for dispersing tension. Have a mix of people involved in the process to ensure people don’t take it too seriously. Chances are that although you may be passionate about your point of view, it is unlikely that the outcomes will be life and death. Have fun along the way and you will be more likely to dedicate the time to getting it right.
  9. Set clear time lines. The last thing you want is for any decision to take too long. Not only is it a waste of time but it also indirectly affects productivity. People don’t like working for long periods of time in high tension environments. By setting clear timelines for decisions to be reached puts responsibility back on the main players to reach a recommendation, rather than no real incentive to agree.
  10. The umpire’s decision is final. Sometimes, no matter your intentions, you won’t be able to reach agreement. This is where you need to ensure there is a strong unbiased executive ready to take on the umpire’s role. By using the competitive tension, the team will be prepared to put forward the various positions and associated risks and issues, as well as the key sticking points. By being able to view the options in such as structured manner you will be better placed to make your unbiased decision. Most importantly to encourage future productive competitive tension, it is important to ensure all key people get an opportunity to be heard and present their position.

© Gary Waldon and 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gary Waldon and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gary is a Director of, an innovator, a speaker and a successful executive known for delivering simple solutions to solve complex problems.

Competitive tension can push you to greater success

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