Q. The boss of our small sales department encourages competition among the salespeople for bonuses and praise. Now the boss wants us to help each other by revealing our individual selling secrets. Can I pretend to cooperate but keep my secrets to myself to avoid benefiting my competition?
A. This question has much in common with a recent column, which discussed asking employees to evaluate their co-workers. Both questions point up the difficulty of soliciting input from workers without treating them as genuine partners. If the success of the firm was foremost in your mind, you would be happy to share your special knowledge; but your boss's policy encourages competition rather than cooperation.
Stephen Covey discusses this exact issue in his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A company manager couldn't understand why his workers were selfish and uncooperative. Covey discovered that this workplace had a chart depicting each salesperson as a racehorse competing for a trip to Bermuda. "Once a week, this man would bring all his people into this office and talk cooperation. 'Let's all work together. We'll all make more money if we do'. Then he would pull the curtain and show them the chart. 'Now which of you is going to win the trip to Bermuda?'" Covey comments that the manager "was trying to get the fruits of cooperation from a paradigm of competition." If your boss wants to create a culture of cooperation, the challenge is to move from a competitive outlook of "win/lose" to a cooperative one of "win/win".
Yet we need to acknowledge that the deficiencies of management do not automatically justify the intransigence of the workers. A trip to Bermuda, or a generous bonus, is nice, but objectively you and your fellow salespeople do have much to gain from cooperation. Your question describes a high-pressure workplace that fosters an excessive spirit of competition, but not a dysfunctional one in which colleagues lack a well-defined common interest. After all, your boss is not asking you to compete for the same customers!
Given this background, your boss's demand for cooperation is uncomfortable but not really unreasonable; therefore it cannot justify any kind of deceit. If you think that your colleagues will frankly reveal their secrets, you should certainly not exploit their cooperation. If you have a reasonable concern that they are not going to cooperate, then you should find a diplomatic way of raising the issue with your boss or your coworkers. One possibility is if all salespeople made a respectful but united front in requesting a more equitable incentive arrangement. For example, you could suggest that any additions to sales in the six months following your "selling workshop" are split fifty-fifty between the salesperson and the rest of the staff, thus acknowledging the team's contribution. Alternatively, you could express your concerns about "abetting the competition" directly to your boss, or discreetly to a colleague or superior who has influence with him.
The Mishna describes a fascinating competition which has much to teach us. The subject is a family who are walking together to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, and the father wants to encourage alacrity: "One who says to his children, 'I will offer the Pesach sacrifice for the one who reaches Jerusalem first', as soon as the first one enters head and body, he wins for himself and wins for his brothers with him" (Mishna Pesachim 8:3). The Talmud explains that the father didn't intend to create negative competition, where only one child would win and the others would lose. On the contrary, he wanted to create positive competition, whereby the entire family would obtain their share of the offering in the merit of the victor -- a true win/win situation.
The healthiest kind of competition is when all members of the team are competing to see who can contribute the most to the team as a whole. It's true that you can't single-handedly create such a mentality in your workplace, but you can and should do your best to foster one.
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