The other morning, I noticed one of my cats running around with her catnip mouse. Now, this isn’t such an unusual occurrence. However, the difference this time was that the other two cats also wanted to play with the mouse. This is unusual: normally, when one cat gets the toy, the others ignore it.
It wasn’t until the cat dropped the mouse that I realized that either it wasn’t a catnip toy or the cat had been playing with a Pinocchio mouse that had picked a very unfortunate moment to become a Real Mouse.
As soon as the mouse was on the ground, it immediately tried to run from the cat. The only thing that saved the mouse was when another cat got in the way. It was a bit hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure that the cats were more interested in competing with one another over which one would get the mouse than in working together. It reminded me of an old Tweety and Sylvester cartoon.
What was particularly interesting, though, was how the mouse behaved whenever a cat did catch up to it: it would open its little tiny mouth, raise its front paws, and try to look fierce. It was pretty funny watching a mouse trying to intimidate a cat that outweighs it one hundredfold. Oddly enough, though, every time the mouse did this, the cat would hesitate, which usually gave enough time for another cat to get in the way. At that point, the mouse would run and the third cat would quickly chase and catch it, causing the whole process to repeat. Eventually, I managed to trap the mouse in a container and release it outside.
To be fair, one can hardly blame the cats for taking an “every cat for herself” attitude. After all, in this situation, we’re talking about a very fixed pie, or mouse. Only one cat will get the prize. Whether that prize is then eaten or proudly left as a gift on a bedroom pillow, there can be only one winner, and it’s not the owner of the pillow. For cats, this is quite normal. Unfortunately, it is also quite normal on far too many so-called teams. Indeed, it is quite disturbing how often teams work together almost as well as did the cats.
Like the cats, though, in a very real sense you can’t blame the team members either. When there is only one mouse, or pie, suddenly the priority becomes getting it. Put another way, whenever team members are in a position of “I win, you lose,” you don’t really have a team; you have a mob or a horde of cats out for themselves.
It doesn’t matter whether there’s a fixed amount of money being given out to the “best” members of the team, or bottom ten percent are being fired. Quite simply, when members of a “horde” are competing with one another for the rewards, performance is drastically and dramatically reduced compared to a strong team. How bad can this be, you ask? A team outperforms a horde by at least tenfold, and can sometimes outperform by a factor of a hundred or more. What is that level of performance worth to you?
Like the cats being “intimidated” by the mouse, members of a horde are also more likely to be flummoxed by relatively simple problems. By behaving in an unexpected fashion, the mouse could startle the cats, in large part because each cat was devoting the bulk of its efforts to competing with the other cats. Thus, they were less able to focus on the mouse. Similarly, when team members are devoting the bulk of their efforts to competing with their supposed colleagues, they spend less effort solving problems. After all, the reward is not for finding the best ideas, but to finding an idea that looks better than the ideas that other team members came up with. In some cases, just being good at making someone else’s ideas look bad is enough to win. Well, at least the individual wins; the team, and the company, end up with a dead mouse on their pillow.
Competition on the team also means that you, the manager, have to spend most of your time keeping your cats walking in the same direction and focused on your goals. This can be exhausting, as anyone who has ever taken their cats for a drag can attest. Team members will only care about the goals of the team when no other way of getting ahead is available. As for taking risks, forget it. Why take a risk when that means someone else gets the mouse? It’s smarter to play it safe and let another person make the mistake.
Far better to eliminate competition within the team and focus team members on competing against other teams, preferably teams at other companies. Use the competition to bring them together instead of driving them apart. If someone on the team isn’t carrying his weight, it’ll become obvious and can be dealt with simply and directly at that point. Building a strong team takes effort, but it sure beats herding cats.