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5 ways anti-competitiveness kills teams

Executive coach, management consultant and psychologist Steven Berglas talks about how teamwork in entrepreneurial projects can be affected.
Forbes | 20.06.2012
In business psychology, the importance of a concept determines how actively pseudo-mavens mangle it. Since “entrepreneurial team work” is as central to the success of startups as transmissions are to cars, it comes as no surprise that “experts” have been tinkering with how to create ideal team dynamics since Athens suited-up against Sparta. The theories sold under the rubric “group dynamics” range from the inconsequential to the benign, with one glaring –and quite dangerous— exception: A group of psychologically challenged liberals who are adamantly opposed to competition, the essence of what makes entrepreneurial teams productive.

The pernicious movement that exists to make a case against competition is known informally as the “Everyone Gets A Trophy” [EGAT] school of thought from its most salient success to date: Doing all that it can to eviscerate the self-esteem of super-talented young athletes. EGAT activists think that the way to improve America is to ensure, beginning in Little Leagues, that a kid who plays baseball like Buster Posey gets the same treatment— from game-to-game praise, to year-end rewards— as one who plays like Buster Keaton. Some EGAT sects are so absurd that they prohibit “formal” score-keeping at Little League games, deluding themselves into believing that a 9-year-old cannot tally, in his head, that his team scored 18 runs and the other team scored only 1.

Why do the EGAT advocates want to destroy entrepreneurial spirit by outlawing spirited competition? It’s simple: As vulnerable kids they were never chosen by their peers for pick-up games and, as teenagers they lacked the requisite skills (and physique) needed to avoid being cut from organized teams. In each instance, being rejected sent them to their bedrooms, sobbing, where they vowed to exact revenge against those with the strengths to compete. Why no one grabbed these self-destructive kids by their collars, told them to “cowboy up,” and demanded they strive to succeed, is beyond me. But that didn’t happen and today, thanks to their compensatory rage, EGAT advocates have gone from eviscerating Little League play to businesses, where they are threatening the essence of what made America great.

To prevent EGAT proponents from influencing how you build teams, consider the following 5 corollaries to their core principle of dispensing rewards in a manner that does not differentiate people along dimensions of ability that are central to their roles on teams. Each of these corollaries can be traced to the EGAT view that if a kid has a limp, he should be carried, rather than encouraged to run. Thank the Lord EGAT loons were not around when Wilma Rudolph, left limping owing to polio, decided to eschew self-pity and run the moment after she was free to shed her “corrective” shoe. How many Olympic medals do you think Ms. Rudolph would have won if, before striving to succeed, she were handed a trophy for sitting with her high school track team doing nothing? Who can say, but without EGAT nuts undermining her spirit, Ms. Rudolph was the first woman to win 3 Gold medals in one (1960) Olympic Games. With Ms. Rudolph’s example in mind, consider the following 5 threats to entrepreneurial spirit, and how best to resist them:There Is No “I” In Team.

This is the biggest lie told by EGAT advocates. Most teams have one or more BIG “I”s surrounded by subordinate “I”s that recognize the value in playing “second banana” to the best of the bunch.

When he was alive and kicking the stuffing out of his competitors, Steve Jobs –the guy who took Apple from a hobby to a company that now has more cash on hand than the U.S. Treasury— was arguably the biggest egomaniac in California… no mean feat. Apple was, if you believe the biographies published after his death, an extension of Jobs’ LSD-enabled genius; it was his playroom and man cave rolled into one. Jobs’ ego was so outsized that messing with whatever product, and virtually any employee, he felt like messing with were daily occurrences.

What happens when BIG EGOS dominate teams? Pixar. Everyone knows that Steve Jobs built Pixar just like he built Apple, right? Wrong. An incredibly quiet and successful genius named Ed Catmull founded Pixar after a 30-year quest to create and produce creative computer-animated feature films. Catmull got the backing of Jobs, George Lucas, and others, eschewed the spotlight, and surrounded himself with teams who felt as he did about being the “I” in a company. Bottom line: Catmull let Jobs get kudos for Pixar’s success, while he and his mates earned zillions and tons of self-esteem.

Athletic teams –the prime target of “EGAT” mush heads— never punish “I”s in their midst if they put points on the board. Instead, they love them, build around them, and thrive. The Chicago Bulls did this when Michael Jordan played for them and got 6 championships for their efforts. Why? As Jordan liked to say, “There is no ‘I’ in team but there is in win.”

Teams Must Lift The Spirits (Self-esteem) of All Participants.

Jack Welch, the man who convinced the world that A Players were responsible for team (company) success, said that “the A’s” were like a rising tide, lifting all around them. The thing is, Welch wasn’t talking about the emotions of those lifted by the A’s, he was talking about performance: Folks produce better quality outcomes when in the presence of talent than when surrounded by mediocre also-rans.

Feel free to put health insurance and whatever other benefits you want in the pay packages of those you hire to staff your teams, but never promise that “self-esteem boosts” will be part of the swag they take home. A job may or may not enhance someone’s self-conception; it exists to provide financial resources. If a worker wants his ego stroked, advise him to take-up a hobby that audiences can react to on his own time. When someone participates in a work group, a.k.a. team, his goal should be to do whatever is required of him as well as possible. Feeling good about oneself often results from this process, but if it does not, caveat emptor.

Teams Work Best When Members Share A Consensus Of Opinion.

If you’re rowing crew, you must be going in the same direction as the other guy(s) in the shell. Ditto being part of a basketball team: You must share, with your mates, a tunnel vision that guides you to the correct (your) basket, not the opponent’s.

In most other team endeavors consensus can kill. If you substitute the concept “groupthink” for consensus, you will instantly know what I mean. No work group ever thrives without some members airing dissatisfaction, being part of a loyal opposition, or refusing to drink the Kool Aid if that is what the commissary happens to be serving on a given day. Why? Because without independent thinkers –or overt dissenters— awareness of the need to change and grow, the opportunity to do so, and the means needed to accomplish novel initiatives— can never be found.

My favorite observation about consensus comes from the late Israeli diplomat, Abba Eban: “A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.” Foster healthy conflict in your teams –dissention directed at kaizen— and your business with thrive.

For Teams To Function Well, Members Must Like Each Other (Be Friends).

This lunatic principle from the EGAT playbook could not be more wrong. Sure, if you have a chronic need for protection from threat, you should sponsor legislative initiatives mandating that workplaces be free from hostility, discrimination of any sort, and interpersonal strife. If you live in the real world, accept that variety is the spice of life, and when spices are poured on wounds the result is pain.

Until I was 21 my favorite musical group was the soul team of Sam & Dave. You cannot imagine how hard I was knocked on my derrière when I helped a concert promoter put on a Sam & Dave concert, met the duet, one at a time, and discovered that Sam & Dave loathed each other! They had separate handlers and aides, and probably had food tasters given the enmity that existed between them. But when the curtain rose and the horns started playing the intro to Soul Man, Sam and Dave were like young lovers snuggling under a moonlit sky. How’d they do it? Focus on the bottom line— success.

Teammates need never like each other to win; what they must do is respect abilities and productivity. I’m not saying that every winning team should foster conflict if none exists, but a good intra-team clash almost never hurts if it is designed to heighten focus.

Years ago, while I was watching the Chicago Bulls win an NBA championship a time-out was called for a commercial and the cameras followed Michael Jordan to the bench. En route, Jordan punched Dennis Rodman in the head. Good for team morale? You bet your Nikes. Rodman was loafing, the Bulls needed him to play defense, and Jordan reasoned (I assume) that his intervention was swifter and more effective than what coach Jackson would have discussed on the bench.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a brilliant writer that I doubt smacked many people in the head, once said, “I won’t accept anything less than the best a player’s capable of doing… and he has the right to expect the best that I can do for him and the team!” Express your lack of acceptance for inferior performance any way that works, and your team will thank you for your politically incorrect utterances.

A Team Leader Must Protect Team Members; Laissez-Faire Team Activities Are Unsafe.

EGAT nuts want leaders to be nannies: Make sure the pursuit of success never tramples individual feelings. Not me. I favor the genius of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who captured what leadership ought to be over 2,300 years ago: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Think of John Wooden (UCLA basketball) and Tony Dungy (Indianapolis Colts). If goldbricks get run over, so be it. If the incompetent are shown they need to improve, good.

If you cannot follow the laissez-faire approach to leadership promoted by Lao Tzu –knowing that folks know where to go and want to get there— situational needs should determine the leader you have in place at any given time. If your team is struggling, you need a leader with the capacity to light fires under the unimpassioned and light fires to the dead wood. If your team is flying high, full of a sense of invincibility, you need a leader who can inoculate players against falling victim to hubris, even if giving a smack-down to a loser is in order.

As a business founder there is no question that you are ideally suited to lead your team out of the gate. But when you’ve grown and might be ready to expand, why not hand the reins to a McKinsey & Co. veteran who spent decades developing topnotch systems skills? If you acquire a competitor you might shift to a leader who can integrate egos, not suppress them; and so on.

Regardless of what type of leader you think you may be, and how crucial you feel you, personally, will be for the success of your enterprise, former Major League Baseball super-star (and all-time hit leader) Pete Rose had sobering advice. When speaking of baseball team managers Rose observed, “The manager of a team is like a stagecoach; he can’t move unless he has the horses.”

In this, week #3 of Startup Month, I urge you to write, “hunt for Talent, A Players, or stars,” on the top line of your To-Do list. Then plan to put them on pedestals. The other stuff is secondary and, frankly, inconsequential: If you don’t have the “horses” that can make your company succeed, keeping a business going so employees can sing Kumbaya will drive you crazy –and broke— in no time.
About the author: Forbes