Why managers resist collaboration ... and what you can do about it!

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated August 2018

In one of our most popular Business Acumen Simulations used for management and leadership development, each team of leaders/managers is given the option of doing something which equally benefits themselves and all the other teams in the simulation.

We try to make it a real “no-brainer” decision for each team by describing a very healthy return on investment for this decision.

There is one small catch however – any team making such a decision must bear the very modest cost of the decision.

As the gains are all equally shared this means initiating teams gets a very slightly lower net benefit than passive teams.

So what do the teams do?

Our experience is that there are generally three types of session – “collaborative” sessions where most teams choose to act for the greater good, “competitive” sessions where most teams do not collaborate and “mixed” sessions with a bit of both behaviours . 

Interestingly about one third of the sessions turn out collaborative, a third competitive and the final third mixed.

When I debrief with teams after the simulation we usually discuss goal setting and whether they considered non-competitive goals?

For example a competitive goal is to have the best profit whereas a non-competitive goal is to have a profit margin in excess of 40%.

There is a world of difference in these two goals, the behaviours which flow from them and ultimately their achievability!

I also ask teams to reflect on the question “Who must lose for you to win?” 

In many cases the surprising answer is Nobody!

So why do so many of these teams not choose a common good when it also benefits them?

The answer to this question is obvious – because they feel they do not want to help their “competition”.

The resistance to collaboration we see in these simulations is equally widespread and commonplace in our organizations and departments [1].

Why are leaders and managers in organizations so reluctant to collaborate?

There is also an easy answer to this question - the fault lies with the leaders – they just need to collaborate more. 

Unfortunately this second obvious answer is wrong and a naïve dead-end which improves nothing. 

A more informed answer is that of course they are competing but that in itself does not necessarily need to be negative and toxic. 

I call this kind of behaviour “competitive collaboration” or “edgy” collaboration. [2] 

Our leaders and managers are ultimately all on the same team – but yet nobody wants to be the weakest link. 

Think of soccer teams – you compete to get on the team in the first place. But then you must collaborate with your team mates against the other teams.  And then you must also compete with some other team mates to stay on the team and keep them from taking your place!


So what our leaders and managers need is not greater team spirit or less selfishness or more altruism, all of which are unsustainable without huge internal support and reward systems, but instead:

a) Better understanding of the “interplay” between collaboration and competition 


b) Recognition that some forms of inter-team and inter-departmental competition are inevitable but can be beneficial if intelligently managed.

For examples of Business Simulations which help teams and leaders develop these practical Interplay skills in their organizations see: Collaborative Working

Further Reading

1. For more on the topic of Sub-Optimization see “Optimizing Each Part of a Firm Doesn’t Optimize the Whole Firm” by Greg Satell in the Harvard Business Review, January 2016

2. For more information on the concept of the Interplay of Collaboration and Competition see: Systematic Guide to Collaboration and Competition within in Organizations

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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