What an Individual Sport Teaches Us About Collaboration

Rightly or wrongly, Singapore has a reputation as a very kiasu society, where “fear of losing out” dominates daily interactions. So it was great to see an example there last weekend of how to be exactly the opposite; the odd thing was, it came from a sport typically viewed as an individual, rather than team-based, competition.

Earlier this week we saw how we could learn from a marathon runner about taking a chance on something new, and how we can improve our chances of success when doing so. In the same event, we saw an example of true sportsmanship that demonstrated the balance between being competitive and being ethical. It shows the difference between succeeding based on your merits, and succeeding based on an unfair disadvantage.

In the Men’s Marathon at the SEA Games, Singaporean runner Ashley Liew found himself in an unusual position early in the race. Running a bit behind the leaders, he was suddenly at the front of the 12-man pack, not because he had pulled ahead, but because the leading runners had been sent the wrong way by mistake. Realizing immediately what had happened, Ashley slowed down and waited for the other runners to close the 50-meter gap and catch up, before continuing on at his race pace.Ashley Liew

Photo courtesy of Dr Ansgar Cheng

You could argue that he should have taken advantage of the opportunity and forced the other runners to expend extra energy to catch up, but that could have led to a victory based on an error by officials rather than based on his own abilities. Both traditional media and social media have exploded in the last couple of days as Singaporeans made it clear that he did the right thing, even earning him a public shout out from the Prime Minister.

How does this relate to your business? Consider how your employees compete with each other, as they pursue new assignments, promotions, and bonuses. While some competition between your employees is a good thing if it pushes them toward stronger performance, it’s important not to take that competitive spirit too far. Misusing information to steal another salesperson’s clients, taking advantage of a death in a colleague’s family to get ahead, stabbing people in the back to remove them from the competition…sure, these can help someone to advance, but is that the kind of environment you want for your workplace? To get the best performance out of your entire team there is a time for them to compete, and a time to collaborate, and you need to help them understand the proper balance.

How can you do that? Basically, by making collaboration equal in importance to individual talent. First, set the right expectations early on, by setting objectives and metrics that emphasize collaborative behavior, not just independent results. If you tell your employees you want them to collaborate, but then spend 90% of their performance review talking about individual achievements, they will focus on moving themselves forward and ignore the needs, and capabilities, of their co-workers. Next, create processes that make use of collaboration, and do so in a way that minimizes the cost of working together (in other words, don’t have too many meetings, and have a process for making decisions so things don’t just drag on). Finally, recruit people based not only on their technical skills, but also on their collaboration ability. Consider going beyond interviews and having some sort of group exercise as part of your evaluation of candidates, and ask their references about their ability to collaborate, not just their individual skill set.

What you will find is that you get much better performance from your employees when they work together. You still need to differentiate between them sometimes, but try to make that differentiation based on their collaborative ability in addition to their individual talents. The best employees are the ones who are strong in both areas, and they will offer you the greatest business value.

It’s interesting how, once your employees have those expectations, the behavior you want becomes the norm. While Ashley seems like the sort of person who would do the right thing anyway, a certain episode in the past may have influenced him. Four years ago, in Singapore’s Army Half-Marathon, Ashley fell, and his main competitor, Soh Rui Yong, stopped and waited for him to get up before continuing. Last weekend, Ashley’s teammate was none other than his friend Rui Yong, who went on to win the race for Singapore.

So is Singapore too kiasu? Maybe not as much as the stereotype suggests. Though Rui Yong wears the gold medal, Singaporean public opinion has shown there is room for more than one champion in their eyes. Your workforce has room for more than one champion as well; it’s up to you to help your employees achieve that.

Learn more about Designing Leaders’ workshop that helps managers create a collaborative environment.

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