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Diverse GroupHappy 2016, friends and colleagues! I hope your year is going well so far. Here on the Highroad we are gearing up to help companies implement the three C’s of global success: Cultural intelligence, Cost savings, and Collaboration. We look forward to connecting with you again, and wish you an inspired year ahead. (Follow me on Twitter at

In this month’s blog we are going to explore how a simple definition can change the results you get when you interact across cultures.

Growing up I feared gym class in school. I dreaded the sound of that bell ringing and always walked as slowly as I could to the field. Why did I cringe at the thought of playing sports with my elementary school classmates? Because I didn’t have a competitive bone in my body. I loved solo activities like ice skating, dancing, or running; but as soon as I had to be on a team competing against others I withered in misery. The kids from my own team were hard on me if I made mistakes because they wanted to win.

As an adult I realized that my tendency toward cooperation made me ideally suited to work across cultures and help my clients to get the best performance from their global teams. I also reworked my thoughts about competition. A global team, for example, could benefit from having both competitive and cooperative personalities.

I went happily along with this perspective until I overheard my husband talking to his father about the definition of “competition” in biology. I looked it up in a biology encyclopedia.

Competition is a negative interaction that occurs among organisms whenever two or more organisms require the same limited resource… Therefore, competitors reduce each other’s growth, reproduction, or survival.

In other words, by the biological definition, competition is an interaction where both parties are harmed. That didn’t jibe, however, with the many examples of competition from my own culture. In sports, for example, there are many winners: The winning team themselves, the fans of that team, the team’s family, and so on. A work team might have a friendly competition to form a stronger bond. When I looked at these examples through the lens of biology, I wondered if they were not competition at all, but are in fact cooperation in a competitive mask.

In sports we create a set of rules and an environment in which teams can engage in structured, albeit sometimes rough, cooperation. On occasion, professional sports do cross over into the biological definition of competition, such as when performance enhancing drugs become rampant among a particular sport. That is a case where all parties are harmed.

Think about the space race of the 1960s and 70s. While it was framed as a competition between the US and Russia, it was actually one of the most incredible examples of cooperation in history. While tension ran high between the two main players, each camp had to demonstrate massive levels of teamwork, interact successfully with other countries, and aim toward a common goal in the face of great technical complexity.

What does all of this have to do with working across cultures? While we need to respect different styles of interacting, cooperation does serve cross-cultural teams of any kind better than competition. The challenge is in the semantics. Which definition of ‘competition’ are we using? The friendly type of competition that is actually cooperation in disguise? Or the biological definition where all parties lose?

A successful global leader should be able to understand the difference, and spot behaviors that show signs of negative competition. Those behaviors and attitudes should be addressed as early as possible, mostly by leading through example. Leaders need to model cooperation, demonstrating to team members how one can show strength and conviction without harming others.

Team members themselves can be watching for attributes of negative competition in themselves such as hoarding knowledge out of fear, blaming and pointing fingers at other team members, or passive aggressive communication.

Almost 80% of world GDP growth between now and 2050 will occur outside of Europe, the United States, and Canada. Organizations can no longer afford to let negative competition create barriers to collaboration. The ability to cooperate and collaborate across cultures, mindsets, and generations will be the key to business survival. It will, I believe, also be the key to the survival of humanity.

What does competition mean to you? How about collaboration? Share your comments with us!

Be sure to check out our website for brand new updates about our services and resources. Happy 2016!

Vicki Flier Hudson

Vicki Flier Hudson, Chief Collaboration Officer for Highroad Global Services, Inc. inspires people to leverage the full power of differences. She has helped countless large-sized corporations establish successful operations across the globe and build bridges across cultures, distance, and time.

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