From Competition to Cooperation

My early career as an oil industry chemical engineer and a strategy consultant was rooted in a competitive mindset. Not only were my employers and clients trying to beat competitors but the competitive mindset permeated the way all of us behaved. Everyone seemed to be competing against everyone else. There was an underlying sense of distrust and a convention of taking a position, digging in, and advocating for it. We followed a “business rationale” where logic and analysis were king and there was little room for emotion or sentimentality.  We dehumanized our decisions and treated people as things. There was little real cooperation. Looking back I realize that I had to leave a bit of myself at the door.  And, in retrospect, this very approach limited our greatness as organizations, leaders, and employees.

In one role, as a chemical engineer, I worked with a team of lawyers to submit formal comments into the air emission regulatory process. I constructed strong logical arguments to demonstrate that there was insufficient evidence of harm to warrant proposed costly regulations. When I left the oil industry I reflected on this experience and realized how completely I had succumbed to a dysfunctional win/lose game. We were playing to win within a narrow role from a narrow vantage point. We were disconnected from our values and the larger implications of our actions.  And we had little interest in discovering the truth and the best solutions for all involved. 

By contrast, 20 yrs later I helped lead the effort at Wal-Mart to launch its sustainability strategy.  This game was framed in Sam Walton’s language of “swimming up stream.”  We were to go against the conventional wisdom and develop innovative solutions that were both good for the environment and good for business.  To do this we partnered with more than 100 nonprofits and many suppliers and experts.  What we were playing was a was a win/win game that invited us to bring our deepest values and whole selves to the table,

Early in my consulting career I led an engagement for a highly effective leader who headed the maintenance division of an international airline. The airline had grown through the merger of several smaller carriers. Our analysis showed that we needed to close one of the maintenance bases.  And the one we chose was located in the most culturally sensitive province in the nation. The base would need to operate productively for one year prior to its closing. To compound the challenge, the workers were represented by a very contentious union.  

My client’s boss ordered him to keep the closure decision a secret until one month before closing. His logic was that without knowing their fate the workers would remain productive. But my client stubbornly disagreed with his boss.   He was committed to his employees and wanted to level with them, engage the union, and ask for everyone’s cooperation. Heroically, against  conventional wisdom, he won over his boss, the union and employees. The maintenance base was highly productive in its final year and every employee was provided with at least one job opportunity either within the airline or outside.  A new level of trust was built with the workforce and union. This laid a foundation of trust and cooperation that paved the way for a decade of ongoing improvement and great performance.

My client was committed to treating his employees with respect and dignity. He expected the best from them and did not succumb to dehumanizing business practices  where people were treated as numbers and organizational boxes. He demonstrated courage, trust and true leadership.  He delivered great performance through the practice of cooperative advantage.

Are you and your organization mired in a competitive mindset or are you realizing the benefits of synergy?  Competitive mindsets have given us with a workforce where, according to Gallup research, 70% of workers are not engaged at a cost of half a trillion dollars a year.

Taking Action: If you want to realize the synergy of cooperation your first step is to recognize where you are today.  

  • Are your employees fully engaged?
  • Do your people trust and cooperate with each other?  
  • Do you have strong relationships with partners, and key stakeholders?  

If any of your answers are no, the first place to start is with yourself and with your leadership team.  You must develop a bias for cooperation, where you envision the benefits of synergy, and lay a foundation of trust.  And ultimately, like my airline client, you must have the courage to walk your talk.

Posted by David Sherman

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