Perspective: Competition AND co-operation increases innovation

Written by
Miha Škerlavaj, Adjunct Professor, BI Norwegian Business School

20 Oct 2020

20 Oct 2020 • by Miha Škerlavaj, Adjunct Professor, BI Norwegian Business School

How an employee feels about their work environment and their perceptions of what it takes to be successful or fail at work is known as the ‘work climate’, of which there are two types.

Mastery climates are associated with employee self-improvement, progress, higher work performance, skill development, and cooperation. In contrast, a performance climate emphasises competition and comparing achievements between colleagues, and is related to high employee turnover, burnout, and lack of effort.

Each climate has its benefits; a mastery climate might be more important for the generation of creative ideas as it encourages individuals to work together and exchange knowledge in a cohesive work environment. However, successful organisations also need to focus on tangible results, an aspect of performance climates, not just employee development and growth; ideas that are generated need to actually be implemented to improve innovation and be profitable. In fact, generating too many creative ideas without implementing them may leave a company worse off than if they had simply not spent any resources on generating ideas in the first place. Although a performance climate sounds less advantageous than a mastery climate, an interplay of the two appears most beneficial.

This was evident from a study conducted with colleagues from the US, Norway, and Slovenia. We used a sample of around 400 employees and supervisors to study the effect of the two work climates on the relationships between idea generation and implementation.

Mastery AND performance

We found that a combination of the two work climates improved the relationship between idea generation and idea implementation: ideas were most frequently implemented in companies with high-mastery and high-performance work climates. This suggests that, despite the potential adverse consequences of a performance climate, a high-mastery work climate focusing on development and growth is useful for negating the disadvantages of a performance work climate and stimulating idea implementation. 

Therefore, organisations which can generate creative ideas, as well as successfully implement them, are the organisations in which employees are perceiving both high-performance and high-mastery climates. These organisations demand high work performance and promote competition, as well as providing personal growth, learning opportunities, and collaboration. 

In practical terms, although performance climates appear to have many unfavourable aspects, competitive behaviour and a focus on end results are still important in the workplace. The negative aspects just need to be balanced out with a mastery climate approach.

In the documentary The Dawn Wall, two of the best free climbers in the world are scaling a 3000ft rock formation, when one of the climbers begins to struggle and is likely not to make it. One of the climbers decides to help the other, so that they can reach their goal together. This shows the importance of a cooperative mastery climate to balance out the negative sides of a competitive performance climate, with cooperation leading to both climbers safely scaling the cliff face.In competitive performance-oriented work environments, managers should promote job autonomy, enable task variation, provide supportive supervision, recognise creative ideas, value employee efforts, and promote skill development, cooperation, and learning; all aspects of a mastery work climate.

To conclude, competitive work environments only promote creativity and idea implementation when combined with a work climate promoting mastery, cooperation, and self-improvement goals. Introducing a mastery work environment is useful for stimulating idea implementation and negating the disadvantages of a performance work climate so companies that want to increase the implementation of creative ideas would benefit most from combining the two climates, giving their employees and workplace the best of both worlds.

Miha Škerlavaj is an Adjunct Professor from the Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School and vice-dean for Research and Professor of Management at the University of Ljubljana, School of Economics and Business. His research areas involve proactive and prosocial organisational behaviours, organisational development and change, and creativity and innovation management. 


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