Tempering Competitive Mindsets in the Workplace

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Boss talking to employee


Leaders understand in the abstract that the Command-and-control leadership style is dead. Employees have more choices regarding where they work, demand more autonomy, and lack tolerance for management practices that impinge on their freedom. But are they fully attentive in the day-to-day how their actions and behaviors belie this understanding?

Command-and-control leaders often exhibit competitive, win-lose mindsets and approaches in their negotiations, interpersonal relationships, and responses to conflict. All leaders should reflect on their command-and-control tendencies and adopt more collaborative mindsets and approaches whenever possible.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) helps individuals assess their tendencies for responding to conflict based on their assertiveness in pursuing and satisfying their own interests and cooperativeness in considering the interests of others with whom they are in conflict. The five conflict modes — avoiding, competing, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating — are determined based on how an individual’s behavioral tendencies align along these two dimensions. Individuals exhibiting the competing mode are generally more assertive in advocating for their own interests and less cooperative in considering the interests of others. Put another way, they are generally more concerned about achieving a particular outcome beneficial to themselves and less concerned about supporting an ongoing relationship with the other person.

The TKI assessment makes no judgment whether the competing mode, like the other modes, is good or bad. How the competing mode is utilized, however, will lead either to desirable or undesirable results based on the outcomes intended. Routinely engaging in a competitive approach will prove ineffective, even detrimental, in supporting work relationships, team efforts, and organizational goals. A competing mode is nevertheless needed and expected in some cases, such as when time constraints on making critical business decisions, emergencies, and safety concerns require immediate action without opportunity for deliberation. Leaders may also engage competing strategies when responding to uncooperative or insubordinate employees, uncalled-for challenges to the legitimate, appropriate exercise of power, or attempts to encourage compromise when upholding ethical standards.

Effective leaders more often rely on collaborating and compromising approaches for day-to-day interactions. Conversely, they guard against using competitive strategies when they:

  • Seek to encourage creative and collaborative team efforts even when they might have a different, though no more effective, approach to problem-solving
  • Negotiate with direct reports, peers, bosses, and other constituents where (as in most cases) fostering ongoing relationships is at least as important as achieving specific goals and outcomes.
  • Perceive that their competitive tendencies have the effect of closing off important communication, dialogue, and conversations of alternative ideas, particularly among others with less power.
  • Realize their “win at all costs” personality and approach results in harming relationships, diminished commitment from employees (including presenteeism, resignations, etc.), and adverse impacts on organizational goals and outcomes.
  • Learn that simply shutting up, sitting back, and listening proves more powerful and effective in fostering relationships and earning trust than talking over or down to others and demanding respect.

Leaders accustomed to routinely utilizing competitive approaches may be challenged to switch to collaborative and compromising approaches. This may require deep self-reflection and a gut check regarding how ego can get in the way. They must also temper their competitive mindsets and foster an environment where collaboration is the norm. They should:

Coach Rather than Command

A recent survey on employee engagement revealed that a third of respondents said they only met their supervisor once a month, or less, and 10 percent almost never met their manager directly. Perhaps some leaders are accustomed to directing employees’ work and expecting results without providing feedback, checking in on how employees are doing and feeling, and providing meaningful coaching to support their job and career development. Employees then become accustomed to receiving directions without questioning based on their leaders’ command approach which provides little leeway for empowering them to make decisions for themselves. Coaching is harder and more time-consuming than directing others. Do it anyway.

Model and Reinforce Collaboration in Team Interactions

We’ve heard and experienced situations involving group settings, such as committees, faculty meetings, and work unit discussions, where the more vocal and forceful voices are heard, and their ideas accepted while others remain quiet, or their input is not consulted. This is one of many examples of the ingroup/outgroup dynamic. The more it occurs in a group the more it becomes the norm that is perpetuated and ingrained to the point that outgroup members become increasingly isolated. Leaders must attend to such dynamics, ensure balance and full participation among all group members, and insist on outcomes that are the product of collaboration and input from all relevant stakeholders.

Change Expectations for Negotiations

As I noted recently, men tend towards competitive negotiation strategies while women tend to be more collaborative. Help all team members develop skills for collaborating to achieve mutual goals, regardless of gender. Strive to be equitable in all negotiations, whether starting a relationship with prospective employees or responding to requests from existing employees. Give the same consideration across the board for similarly situated employees without regard to gender or other factors. Transparency is essential. Why make negotiations a guessing game? For example, many institutions provide salary and compensation guides; make these available to create clarity around salary expectations. In general, make negotiations a conversation, not a debate, where you can discuss what you can and cannot do to honor requests and explore how you can support employees to realize their goals.

Respond Unequivocally to Violations of Norms for Respect and Collaboration

Inappropriate employee conduct is often exhibited through abrasive, aggressive, and adversarial conduct — the competing mode on steroids. Bullying is the classic example where the individual’s focus is solely on meeting their own needs with little or no concern for supporting or considering the needs of others. Interestingly, a leader’s response is to engage in responsible use of the competing mode to reject such behaviors, insist on appropriate behavior, and impose consequences for violations. Sadly, leaders too often respond with avoidance as they do enable the bully. Leaders must adapt their conflict style to the situation, fostering collaboration and compromise as the norm for daily interactions and exercising, appropriately and firmly, their power and authority in a competing stance to respond to clear deviations.

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