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Competition or Co-operation?

June 4, 2010

My work takes me into many organisations, particularly in the public sector. Some of these organisations are really functional and others aren’t and this gets reflected in the success of their work with partners.  So it got me to wondering what was the difference? In my experience the difference that makes the difference is the type of leadership within the organisation and the group dynamics of the top team, i.e. how well they work together. This appears to get played out throughout the organisation and in the functionality of their partnerships with other organisations.

Competition - Only One Winner?

Kurt Lewin, whose work has promoted our understanding of functional groups, cites two things that makes groups work: how co-operative a group is and the kind of leadership it has.

Co-operation - Everybody Succeeds...

So what makes a co-operative group?

In Lewin’s theory, groups can be competitive or co-operative. Individuals are either working to their own goal or a common goal.  A co-operative group exists when the ‘group members realise that their individual fate depends on the group as a whole’. In other words their own individual success is dependent on the success of everyone else and vice versa.  This kind of group works collaboratively, always seeking the win-win-win.

And what is the right kind of Leadership?

Again taking from Lewin’s work with Lippitt, he talks about three kinds of leadership.

  • Autocratic – a directive style where the leader holds ultimate power and often the fate of individuals within a group. This style can be seen as aggressive.
  • Laissez-faire –  avoiding confrontation, where followers complain of a lack of direction – a passive style
  • Democratic – a discursive style that involve individuals in decision-making and holds group or corporate responsibility – an involving style

The Democratic style was seen to be most effective and has certainly been my experience.

I have been called in to facilitate discussions between organisations whose fate is interdependent – in other words they need each other to be successful. Calling me in is often the last resort and I have learnt (once to my cost) what will make these discussions successful. It is all to do with the leadership that is in place. If the leaders can move towards this democratic style of involvement and understanding each others perspective then it is possible. If they hold onto a moral high ground or the need for power it won’t be. Usually organisations know their common goal. Sometimes they have forgotten and just need reminding, but if the leadership of that group is not willing to move position nothing else will either.

I have particularly seen this dynamic happening between commissioning and providing organisations or public and private partnerships. The ones that fail are characterised by unspoken or spoken suspicion, often with one party striving to control and the other feeling that their fate is in the hands of the other. Where this works, both partners work together wanting both to be successful, where everyone ulitmately feels like they are sharing and part of a team win.

They have difficult conversations and are the better partners for it, and once a decision is made they share the responsibility for that decision. So what does it take for this kind of partnership to work? One where that kind leadership is already in place within the organisation. Where individuals are prepared to stand up and share their views and not feel like they are putting their heads above the parapet. One where people take risks to achieve the common goal and are lauded for it. These risks won’t alway work and there will always be learning.

So to achieve long-lasting success, lead in a way that allows others to be part of your decision-making. Let go of ego and keep an eye on that common goal.

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