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Competition or Collaboration?

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on Aug 08, 2011
Tagged in: teams, learning, leadership, diversity, collaboration

 It’s useful to know the game we’re playing, and the rules that govern play. Sometimes we can be playing several games with the same people at the same time. We may be winning at one game, but we're losing at a more important one.

I remember being in a pick-up basketball game in high school, and having a good time, until I got an elbow hit to the nose. I had to walk around with a bandage over it for the next couple of months. I was surprised to discover an unanticipated benefit, though. The school’s star quarterback had gotten his nose broken about the same time, and suddenly girls started to notice me, probably thinking I was him, or at least associating my injury with his.

I wouldn’t want to get my nose broken again, though, just to get girls’ attention. But looking back at the incident, I had been a problematic opposing player, and the elbow to my nose had taken me out of the game, and out of the way.

So there were two games going on--competitive basketball between two teams was one. Getting rid of problematic opposing players was another game. This wasn’t part of the rules of the first game, though winning at the second game improved the first game for their side. Becoming attractive to the opposite sex was a third, mostly unspoken game, at which I had a painful but lucky break.

We human beings enjoy playing games--all sorts of games. In the US, as in many countries, we enjoy playing or watching games like football, basketball, tennis, soccer, hockey, etc. These are competitive games; if one side wins, the other side loses. The play brings together opposing individuals or groups, playing within the physical boundaries of the court or field, as well as the behavioral boundaries of agreed-upon rules. Each side has a goal, which it tries to achieve, while preventing players on the other side from achieving theirs. Eventually, one side wins and the other loses.

Virginia Satir, who trained family therapists and whose work influenced many OD practitioners, described patterns of decision-making using a simple model of a two-person interaction. Here is what I learned from her:

In the first example, I might want to get my way, even if it’s at your expense. In this case I would argue for my wants, needs, rights, etc. and discount your arguments or preferences, even if it means being particularly disagreeable: “We’ve always gone to mountains for our summer vacation; we end up traveling a long time to get there and back. We should go to the beach near our house!” I argue for what I want, and try to undermine or discount what you want. My behavior pattern is to disagree:

Under different circumstances the opposite might be true: When I interact with you around a decision we need to make, I might act as if I want to please you, so I’ll discount my preference and agree to yours. My behavior strategy is to be very agreeable. Typically, I would make believe there is only one party to the decision--you: “Where do you want to go for our vacation this year, Dear?” Of course, the catch is that I will expect some kind of goodies in return--maybe that you make believe I’m a really good person, but I never say so.

A third pattern emerges when this kind of decision-making and its potential for conflict raise so much anxiety for me that I’ve learned to avoid engaging in it at all. So when such circumstances emerge, I will neither agree nor disagree--I will do everything I can to get away from the situation. Most typically I will deal with it by changing the subject--sometimes in very creative ways: “You were asking about our vacation--oh, by the way, your mother called. She seemed upset about something and wants to talk with you right away.” Neither you nor I get what we want, but we avoid dreaded conflict.

Another version of this mode appears more positive, though it really isn't: Each of us gives up some of what we want until we can agree on what’s left. We call itcompromising. It avoids conflict by the expedient that neither of us gets what we want.

Thus, Satir described these three modal patterns of decision-making behavior: agree, disagree, or change the subject--undermining, capitulating, or avoiding. She then pointed out an implicit aspect of these patterns--the underlying assumption that either I will get my way or you will get yours. It’s the win-lose assumption. When I argue with you I try to win by making you lose. When I offer to do whatever you want, I lose and you win (though I’m covertly hoping to win something else by losing in this situation). And when I change the subject or push for compromise, neither of us gets what we want and we both lose.

Most of us develop a habitual preference for one of these three strategies, though none of them is really satisfying. Do you recognize yourself in one of them? What can you tell me about your experiences with your own pattern?

I’m interested in seeing your thoughts and experience on this kind of dilemma.

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