Riding the Leadership See-Saw

If you are a leader working in an organization, you know what I’m talking about. You are constantly having to ride the competition-cooperation see-saw. You must cooperate (to get and keep clients/get work done) and compete (for internal resources) simultaneously. Leaders who struggle with the competition-cooperation see-saw face constant anxiety, frustration and career ending jobs. I see this often in my consulting and coaching work.

Toss Monopoly, Tune into Project Runway, Survivor, or log on to MMORPGs

When my kids were younger, they loved to play Monopoly. Whenever they’d visit their grandparents, the 1950s board game came out of the closet. They’d be entertained for hours (much to my pleasure).

My mom and dad loved to play the game and my kids learned some good lessons about how to win and lose. As for teaching them about money, the economy, the marketplace, it gave them all the wrong ideas. I will concede that Monopoly can teach kids some of the mechanics of money like how to count or how property is treated as an asset. But as an economic idea, it’s time is long gone.

What’s the big idea?

Monopoly is a game from the Great Depression era; a time of few winners and lots of losers. It’s what economists call a ‘zero-sum’ game where the only way to be wealthy is take money from others. Monopoly is a game of exchange, of transactions. In order for me to win, you have to lose. Economic reality is rarely a zero-sum game. A global economy where goods and services are exchanged, by necessity, must benefit the parties involved.

What’s the big idea today that our employees should understand?

Interdependence — we are reliant on each other. Interdependence brings with it a weird kind of dichotomy – we need to compete and cooperate at the same time. Yin-yang; two sides of a coin.

It pains me to say it but the games that best reflect economic reality today are … reality shows. They have to cooperate in order to compete. So toss the Monopoly board and tune into Project Runway, Survivor or log on to MMORPGs. At your next staff meeting, engage your employees in a conversation about what games best mimic life at work. You’ll have an interesting staff meeting.

What can a leader do?

Think and act in less linear ways Focus on your ability to develop, nurture, and keep productive relationships to get your work done. Stop thinking and acting only as an individual contributor. You must have the skill to build personal and professional networks of information and knowledge. This will allow you to think and act in less linear ways.

Teaming, problem-solving behaviors across job boundaries, knowledge-discovery skills, personal networking outside the department, and building relationships to share knowledge and information are rarely seen metrics on employee performance evaluation forms. The disconnect remains between what organizations say they want and what they reward. But don’t get discouraged. These skills are valued and rewarded in the marketplace…and they are the skills that will get the job done.

Learn how to cooperate and compete simultaneously. In order to do this, you can’t alienate people, you have to manage relationships. Most of us grew up in companies learning to compete for resources, for customers, for budgets, for rewards. It was about winning. But the “I win, you lose” attitude in today’s complex business environment will backfire. No one individual or department can be successful without productive relationships throughout the system.

Yet, building those productive networks inside organizations is often neglected. Why? Time, trust, and skill. We spend lots of time articulating what needs to be done, but little time on how to do it. The “how” part of the job is the relationship stuff. It’s the acknowledgment that interdependence is the new metric for changing, growing, and strengthening our organizations.

So toss the Monopoly board and start watching your favorite reality show to learn some leadership lessons.

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Monica Hall

Oh my goodness…YES. Nancy, thank you for highlighting this crucial, irreplaceable ingredient of productive organizations–the “how”. Love your analogies.

Michele Costanza

Great blog. Agree with what you wrote. Just please don’t use the words “coopetition” or “synergy.”

Usually the contestants on those reality shows who assert that they are there to win and they aren’t there to make friends with the other contestants, end up losing. The other contestants simply make their lives a nightmare.

Jaime Gracia

If a leader can not create and function in teams, performance will suffer. Autocratic and dictatorial leadership styles create dysfunction, mistrust, and kill morale. Collaboration is the key to effectiveness, which requires the ability to form relationships with team members and manage those relationships. I simply do not agree with the “I am not here to make friends” management style.