NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Competition undoubtedly has its merits. As the mainstay of capitalism and the cornerstone of progress and innovation, it is arguably the key to success. From evolution to economics to sports, competition between groups creates stronger genes, better products and faster athletes. Even competition within an organization ultimately strengthens it as individual members strive to be the best and thus elevate the whole.
But this only holds true to a point. When this point is eclipsed, internal competition threatens the essence of the organization itself. (See graph) In our government, for example, Republicans and Democrats appear trapped in a downward spiral of competition, which threatens to bring productivity to a screeching halt, as might happen if the rate of filibusters continues to rise.
Imagine a basketball team comprised solely of MVP wannabes who refuse to pass the ball or a restaurant in which the chefs sabotage their colleagues' dishes to guarantee theirs shine: both would fail and fail spectacularly. Competing with colleagues not only blinds the group to the overall goals but also inhibits each participant's personal development. And as we all know, any organization is only as strong as the sum of its parts.
To ensure internal competition remains the motivating force it can be, business owners must keep their antennae finely tuned to sense destructive competition and stop it. Beware of these top 10 early warning signs!
Sabotage -- subtle or overt:
Employees channel efforts into obstructing each other's work rather than moving the company forward.
The classic "Apprentice" scenario:
Employees abandon their fellow team member with whom they worked on a project if the pitch fizzles in front of management.
The blame game:
Company meetings are consumed by skillful finger pointing and under-the-bus tossing among colleagues rather than productive dialogue.
Opportunism run amuck:
While all would be surely present to share in any glory, employees desert one another in the face of crises or pressing deadlines.
An employee steals a colleague's idea, and then passes it off as her own. Managers are not above taking credit for their subordinate's ideas as well, so beware.
Employees strategically block an initiative by a colleague just to prevent his "victory" or success.
The sour grapevine:
Employees spread rumors about their colleagues to turn corporate favor against them. "Harmless" rumors often progress to vicious, reputation damaging rumors, so stay tuned.
An employee complains about you, the business owner, or someone else in management to the clients just to elevate his appeal. Client poaching is next, so beware!
Employees become so desperate to present favorable numbers to outdo another division that they manipulate (or even invent) data on client sales to do so.
The executive cold shoulder:
An upper level employee deliberately snubs a high level, strategically important client dinner just to spite the CEO or management.
While the drive to compete is innate among all of Earth's inhabitants, we Homo sapiens have the intelligence (we hope) to create and maintain a constructively competitive environment. Given our years of evolution, we have the intellectual and emotional development to prevent productivity from diminishing as a result of competition, so why do so many slip into destructive patterns? Why are we obsessed with a victor, a conqueror, or a top dog?
In an interview last week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger commented that Asians play the game of "Go," we Americans play Chess. One is about strategic encirclement; one is about winning. Animals intuitively know the merits of strategic encirclement and understand the importance of cooperating as a team (they hunt in packs). They also practice patience: they lie motionless for hours, waiting for the right moment to ambush prey.
Interestingly, the game of Go can take days to play, as the long term goals take precedence over short term ones. In this sense, businesses and governments could learn something from our feral ancestors -- and our eastern rivals.