This week I was talking to a business leader at a conference about his challenge of getting some of his team to work more effectively together.
He said that, on the surface, there was this lighthearted banter among them; but he recognised that, under the surface, there was rivalry, distrust and cruelty towards each other - sometimes "bullying", as he described it. And as Ellen DeGeneres put it:
"Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else's expense. And I find that that's just a form of bullying in a major way."
This leader's reflection was in response to a group coaching session I delivered at a conference for business leaders who are competing for the same audience, using similar sales and marketing methods - and all fishing in the same pond (or sector).
In the session I politely challenged them to drop their competitive pants and try something new: collaborative thinking to tackle some of the challenges they were facing as business leaders. I asked them to create the optimal thinking environment by putting each other at ease, encouraging each other's thoughts with their curiosity, paying attention to each other's words and body language - and supporting one another's thinking without influence or judgement.
Some of the leaders optimistically embraced the challenge; others felt out of their comfort zone and approached the exercise with caution and cynicism - and tried to deflect their discomfort by joking their way through it.
This leader's reflection on his team, and indeed the challenge that I laid down to the room-ful of competitors, has got me thinking: how do we get groups of people who don't want to work together do exactly that - to trust each other and to work together effectively? And is office banter always a good thing? Does banter sometimes mask a lack of trust, insecurity or a perceived threat?
"How do we get groups of people who don't want to work together do exactly that?"
What is this threat? Is it competition? Is this why banter can turn from being playful one minute to unkind another? Why do we use humour - or banter - to put each other down?
Dr. Kristen Neff, author, public speaker and self-compassion expert, says that one of the 'things we do' is that we put others down in order to bolster our own feelings of self-worth - to bolster our self-esteem. By putting someone down, do we convince ourselves that we're better? This kind of cruel behaviour has long been associated with narcissists, for example. Being cruel not to be kind, but being cruel to be better.
Competition in business can be overt - like a roomful of competitors at a conference - or discreet - like a team of individuals who are vying for the next promotion or pay rise. Often colleagues and managers can sense it, but can't quite point to any theme in behaviours or indeed to what's triggering the sense of competition.
Nancy Kline, author, motivational speaker and founder of Time To Think, an organisation that helps businesses and their leaders to do their best thinking as a critical tool for success, talks about encouragement being one of the key ingredients of successful collaboration. Encouragement is the enemy of competition. When we feel encouragement we let down our guards and we allow one another to support each other towards finding the best solution. Not a better solution. The best.
And sticking on comparatives and superlatives for a minute... Being better than another person or another business i.e. the motivation behind competition doesn't mean that we're doing our very best work. It's just better. And sometimes better isn't good enough. When you think about competition in those terms, all of a sudden it doesn't feel particularly compelling, does it?
Competition can, of course, be healthy for business. But it's not always healthy for humans. Especially when our success is being measured by our collective thinking and doing. It is how we are with each other that makes the difference between a top-performing team and a sub-optimal and, perhaps unhappy, team.
Competition can, of course, be healthy for business.
But it's not always healthy for humans.
How can we remove unhealthy competition from our working environments and teams? By building empathy, camaraderie, compassion, respect and trust. Most 'team building' days / weeks / training programmes cover these off. And by being clear as a business, and by being bold as business leaders, in communicating that any kind of cruel language or behaviour - whether masked by banter or not - among staff will not be condoned.