Article published on September 14, 2015
By Clare Trapasso
Building a corporate culture that pushes professionals to excel through a healthy dose of competition while also encouraging teamwork can be tricky.
But shops like Lincoln Financial and Janus have developed incentives and team-building techniques in a bid to boost collaboration among staffers.
Cutthroat cultures, like those depicted in a recent New York Times article about Amazon, can sap productivity and freeze workers with fear, workplace consultants say.
Employees at Amazon, for example, can submit critiques of their colleagues to managers through an internal program. In some cases, staffers also form alliances to target certain coworkers, while protecting themselves, as the tech giant is known for firing its lowest-ranking performers each year, according to The New York Times.
Such behavior “sets up more silos, more turf wars,” says Jen Shirkani, president of the Penumbra Group, a leadership consultancy based in Bedford, N.H. “A culture that is very competitive can bring out the worst in people. It’s human nature in some cases to want to make others look bad if they’re seen as a direct competitor.”
Strong bosses who don’t clamp down on bullying behavior enable backstabbing to continue, says Brian Gennaro, a partner at Rockwood Search Associates, a financial services recruiting firm.
“The tone is set by the leaders of organizations, leaders of departments, leaders of businesses,” he says. “Trying to strike that balance between fostering a competitive, challenging environment that is at the same time highly collaborative is not easy.”
Firms can avoid internal sabotage by directing competitive energy toward an outside competitor instead, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“Nothing brings people together like a common external threat,” he says. “They will work hard in a collaborative effort to win.”
Companies striving to incent strong, individual performance can do so through promotions and pay, says Alvin Spector, a partner at Chicago-based OverNorth Senior Executive Recruitment.
Lincoln Financial’s annuity and small-market 401(k) plan business this month launched a program through which sales teams can share in winning a financial award for boosting their sales by a certain percentage. The firm defines small-market 401(k) plans as those typically with under $15 million in assets and 100 participants or fewer.
“If you’re a wholesaler on a team and you see another wholesaler struggling, there’s an incentive to want to help that wholesaler out,” says John Kennedy, head of that sales division and its 180 external and 125 internal wholesalers.
The Radnor, Pa.-based firm uses financial awards to encourage wholesalers in different areas, such as variable annuities or 401(k) plans, to refer clients to other departments.
Working together is key for the company, as many of the best ideas to drive new sales come from wholesalers on the ground, Kennedy says. “We want those ideas shared throughout the organization,” he says.
For its part, Janus is rolling out a self-assessment questionnaire that is designed to take about 20 minutes and to help sales and marketing professionals pinpoint their strengths when working on teams.
“We’re very interested in leveraging strengths,” says John Evans Jr., executive director of the Denver-based Janus Labs. “When you understand the strengths of your team members, better outcomes ensue.”
The onus of fostering a collaborative but high-achieving environment that brings the best out of staffers lies with of the managers, he says. Bosses regularly share stories about the successes of the team, rather than individuals, to foster a team-oriented culture, he says.
Penumbra’s Shirkani recommends that firms dole out individual goals as well as goals shared across their teams so that they win — or lose — together. Bonuses should reflect a worker’s own performance as well as that of his or her team.
Companies that only reward the cream of the crop without recognizing contributions of others that helped them can unwittingly create a sharp-elbowed environment, says Jeanne Branthover, head of the global financial services practice at Boyden Global Executive Search.
Professionals who feel their workplaces have become toxic should try to diffuse tension and make allies in the office, says Kathryn Mayer, author of Collaborative Competition: A Woman’s Guide to Succeeding by Competing.
“Give credit to people, offer compliments,” she says. “You need to develop a wide network. You have to make sure that you’ve got someone at a senior level who will support you.”
Employees who feel they are being undermined need to figure out fast how much their colleagues can damage their careers.
“Don’t try to confront them if you don’t have more power than them,” Mayer says. Instead she recommends seeking counsel of someone with more power than the bully. A higher-up is “the only person who a Machiavellian will listen to.”
But that doesn’t mean workers should tattle on one another to management, says Boyden's Branthover.
“You don’t want to sabotage someone,” she says. “Say ‘I’m not happy working with this person because they’re not pulling their weight.’”
Professionals who don’t fit into uber-competitive cultures should not feel threatened, but they should consider leaving their firms for a better cultural fit, she says.
“Not every company is right for every person,” Branthover says.
Clare Trapasso is a print and multimedia journalist at the New York Daily News with experience writing breaking news and feature stories in urban and rural communities.
As a general assignment reporter on the Daily News’ Queens Bureau and Metro Desk, she covers everything from schools being closed, to naked bike rides, to grisly murders, local politics and everything in-between.
Prior to that, she was an Associated Press reporter in the wire service’s New Hampshire Bureau. During the six-month assignment, she covered state and national news and put together several multimedia projects. She also edited stories and wrote broadcast news.
She became passionate about journalism at the State University of New York at Purchase College, where she graduated with a B.A. in journalism in 2002. In her senior year, she created a campus women's newspaper called The Cycle.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, she joined the Peace Corps. She was sent to Independent Samoa in the South Pacific, where she learned Samoan and taught college-level journalism classes in the capitol.
When she returned to America, she began graduate school. In 2007, she earned a M.A. in Journalism from New York University. As a student, she interned for the Daily News and The Village Voice. After graduation, she did an internship in the Associated Press New York City Bureau.
Clare Trapasso is interested in writing stories that can effect change. She can be contacted at email@example.com.