Positive or Negative? Competition or Cooperation?

I have just finished teaching a course on Leadership and Ethics and it was interesting to see the variety of opinions my students have on topics such as these. The course was very enjoyable and the energy level was very high. The interesting part of this course, as well as all the courses I teach, is that they have a mixed participation of both undergraduate students in their third of fourth year and professionals who are taking the course for more practical application in their workplace. The beauty of these mixed student courses, from my perspective as an instructor, is in the junction of two worlds: one still a bit idealistic and full of hope that, as individuals, we can be critical agents of change no matter what our position in society and our role in the community; the other more pragmatic with an approach to work with the system to find where it is failing and how it could be fixed within certain rules and laws. I appreciate both and I think that both apply: we just need to find the necessary equilibrium between these two schools of thought. “Dualism” has limitations and needs to be reviewed and revised at all levels of society to reduce extremism and conflict, mostly the result of the tension it causes.

I wish to push this concept further to current organizational and societal practices and philosophies and suggest dualism needs to be seen under a different perspective or, better, it needs to be practiced with a different set of skills which require the ability to be open minded and flexible, and the desire to a win-win attitude. For instance, what I hear from most, if not all, of the leaders of our communities, including the leaders of the world, is that they wish to have peace and prosperity for all. In this case, it appears that all share the same goal. This is an ideal starting position for accomplishing a win-win result. Obviously, the devil is in the details. That is why leaders need to act accordingly and really focus on the final goal. Having said that, we also need to be aware of what dualism looks like and recognize it in order to work with it for the benefit of the final result or goal rather than being sucked into it with conflict and tension.

In a recent article I wrote for the community I live in, I stated that as human beings we tend to remember the negative things more than the positive ones. For some, in fact, this is so imbued in their personality that, no matter how good something is or how well done, they have to complain about something. Others, on the other end, are perfectionists and ask continuous questions on this and that trying to find something wrong in anything and everything (and if they do not find any, they will come up with something). Again it is human nature and it is very rare to find people that see positive, even in the face of difficult times. The reality is that it is easier to be negative than to be positive. In order to be positive we have to exert some effort, while being negative offers the path of least resistance. So the first thought that comes to mind is that winning (reaching a worthwhile goal) is hard work and continuous and consistent effort to reach the final objective. This means that, if we are really serious about accomplishing what we desire, we need to make choices, which, in my opinion, always entail some level of personal sacrifice in order to get there. For instance, if I am serious about losing weight, then I have to reconcile myself with the thought of renouncing to some foods and drinks that I immensely enjoy in order to reach my goal. In fact, there is no other way and it is not easy.

In the July issue of Scientific American, the main article, ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’, argues that competition is not the only force that shaped life on earth. In fact, rather than being an exception in nature, cooperation is very common in many species and ecosystems. The author of the article, Dr. Martin A. Novak, writes that “examples of selfless behaviour abound in nature. Cells within an organism coordinate to keep their division in check and avoid causing cancer, worker ants in many species sacrifice their own fecundity to serve their queen and colony, female lions within a pride will suckle one another’s young. And humans help other humans to do everything from obtaining food to finding mates to defending territory. Even if the helpers may not necessarily be putting their lives on the line, they are risking lowering their own success for the benefit of another individual.” He further states that “Life is, therefore not just a struggle for survival – it is also, one might say, a snuggle for survival.” The pattern of personal or individual sacrifice surfaces again as the basis, if not the foundation of success.

But while negativity is a deterrent to progress and creativity, tension if used wisely can be a powerful tool for progress. It just needs to be balanced with an open mind and the ability to work with others. True teamwork spirit can only exist if the members of the team feel they can disagree and provide their input. This does not mean that disagreement needs to occur every time: that would be tantamount to negativity and would in fact be deleterious to the functioning of the team. But honest feedback and discussion is often a sign of progress. An ancient religious leader once wrote: “For it must needs be, that there is opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness…neither good or bad.” In other words, how can we tell that something is good if we have not experienced bad? And in our leadership efforts, how can we establish that our plan is good if no one challenges it? It is the same in nature. Entropy, for instance, is a way to describe the relationship between order and disorder: the two, in the physical world, are connected and are manifested according to natural dynamics. It is not then difficult to observe that competition does not exclude cooperation and viceversa. In healthy organizations, team work based on the ability to challenge the status quo and on strong adaptability to change create two conditions that are not necessarily exclusive. The first one is the ability to synergize and, therefore, to reach the ultimate goal of finding solutions to problems and issues from a group approach. If you have ever observed a synergistic team, you may have noticed a strong sense of belonging and a state of fulfillment. The other is that team members are able to feel the desire to improve and apply themselves in order to move up in the organization. Successful succession planning fosters healthy competition through cooperation and when that happens, organizations are able to choose its leaders from within.

We live in difficult times. Tensions and conflicts are everywhere, between nations, within nations, within communities and so on. It appears that in a conflict situation no one wishes to give in. The only solution is through healthy competition and cooperation. Negative thinking should be replaced with principle-based thinking and individuals need to make an effort to live with integrity and accept the consequences of their decisions and choices. In a society that has become more accustomed to immediate gratification and entitlement, values and principles are more and more difficult to find. We need to stop being selfish and find true dialogue if we really wish a better world. In order to do that, we can only act within our circle of influence: the people around us and the organizations and communities we work for and live in.

The philosopher Seneca said: “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.” Changing the world is to dare changing ourselves. There is no other way…





10 thoughts on “Positive or Negative? Competition or Cooperation?

  1. Fascinating piece. I find this an interesting point of conversation in professional circumstances where I see exceptional people and management teams approaching obstacles and competitors as opportunities to collaborate, learn and strengthen – where average firms/individuals see territory and competition as fundamental driving forces.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Leadership and Change with me Alberto, much of it resonates with my own experiences. Some of this experience indicates that Leadership is coming, or attempting to come from the bottom, up; which runs into your Dualism. Does a young Leader pursue change and risk alienation or conform over time. We should chat sometime on my thoughts on Leadership versus anti-Leadership. Anti-Leaders are very hard to spot, are very articulate, however lack the experience, ability and desire to implement change; how do we help young Leaders successfully navigate around these?

  3. Thank you for this post.
    Your thoughts on competition and cooperation were interesting; both are needed in society; if a country favors competition only then the weak will suffer- if it favors cooperation only then mediocrity and complaincency will grow. A balance of both provides the fuel for innovation and growth but more than that, it creates the conditions for a culture of empathy to develop where people understand and care for one another with out compulsion, incentive or legislation needed .

    1. Thank you Chris. I certainly agree with your comments: you need both competition and cooperation to really succeed.

  4. Alberto, it is very heartening to read your perspective on the endless possibilities where cooperation and competition are harmonious companions. Your optimistic, yet realistic, spirit will motivate many to shed their negative attitudes. Please keep expanding your sphere of influence, it is sorely needed.

  5. Your commentary reflects a depth of thinking and, dare I say it, feeling, that I find refreshing. It also reflects my experience in elected office over the years. Thanks for giving voice to these profound truths. Leaders are people who can both model and inspire this approach.

  6. Thanks, Alberto. It does help me see that in spite of human nature, we can still change when we understand. The logic of dualism is something we don’t always have ‘in” us, but that we can learn and apply. These thoughts you shared, can help me develop the desire to be more aware of my feelings of “competition” when I really need more “cooperation”.
    Hope to be able one day to talk to you about this and more!

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