Penn Relays AthleticsSometimes I can be a little competitive. I really wanted to be on the winning relay team in my beginner swim training. I admit that I was gunning for the top grade in my legal writing class back in law school. And my fierceness can be a little over-the-top when it comes to Cranium, Scrabble and Rummy. I also like winning pitches; launching a website that gets lots of accolades; and beating last year’s sales target.

The one place I can say I don’t feel competitive is within my partnership. “Why not?,” a business coach asked me. “Obama built a team of rivals.

I’ve thought a lot about that question. The answer is no.

First of all, the analogy doesn’t really work. Obama, following Lincoln’s management strategy, sought to bring together a team of former rivals. But once they joined his cabinet, they became a team. He may cultivate an open dialogue that celebrates differences and invite debate around controversial topics. But those former rivals now have all the same objective: to support and advise the President. They are no longer rivals. They are a team.

Partnership is a team sport.

According to Google a team is “A group of players forming one side in a competitive game or sport.” In other words, teams are competitive with other teams; not with its own members.

It’s tough out there. Other businesses will take your customers if you give them the chance. You’ve got to work together to defend your turf and look for opportunities to grow. You’ve got to be able to trust that you can pass the ball; that someone will pick it up when you drop it; and that there will be high fives when anyone scores.

Competition is counterproductive.

Studies have shown that collaboration is more productive than competition (read more here). Furthermore, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who wrote a book about Lincoln’s strategy, points out that competition can be paralyzing. It sets up an unnecessary conflict and pits partners against each other for monetary gain, organizational power, or just plain old egoism.

There are better ways to incentivize performance. Introducing mechanisms that monitor results in relation to the goal is one way to motivate partners to work together to achieve their target. Another study suggests that setting up a structure wherein your team can monitor comparative data in relation to other groups (i.e., your real competitors) can be a powerful way to improve efficiency and cooperation.

Adversarial behavior is demoralizing.

Competition within a team sets up a framework of winning and losing. It means counting beans and keeping score. Sound like fun? Trust me, it’s not. Even a dynamic that starts as friendly can turn sour when the “players” lose their sense of community. An example: As part of a team building exercise, we divided into two groups to play charades. They competitive types all ended up on one side. And we won. But our opposing team was completely demoralized — over a game most of them didn’t even care about in the first place. So much for team building. I’ll spare you the story of our company snack contest.

It’s even worse when partners are competitive because it takes the focus off the business and puts it on interpersonal conflict. The result? The business and the relationship suffer.

When is competition healthy?

Competition can be healthy when it’s directed towards an external group, as long as the focus is on productive collaboration and inspired teamwork. In other words, you’ve got to make sure you don’t put so much emphasis on an outcome over which you have no control.