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Are You Competitive or Cooperative?

2/20/2007 5:13:34 PM

By Sheng Wang

On his first day of graduate school, my friend heard these words from his instructor: "Take a good look at the people around you. Yesterday, they were the competition. Today, they are your peers, friends, and future colleagues." But does one's competitive streak disappear simply because the instructor asks it to? I think not. Most training programs select students who are ambitious, determined, and willing to work their way to the top of the class. Once these students become working professionals, the desire to rise above the rest can be a powerful, and a positive, motivating force. However, a distinction needs to be drawn between healthy and unhealthy forms of competition.

Healthy competition drives people to perform at their best, and does not harm individuals or the workplace as a whole. This form of competition includes trying to outdo your own previous efforts, or friendly competitions where different units fight for honors like the lowest infection rate for the month. Unhealthy competition occurs when someone's attempts at self-advancement harms others and weakens the workplace as a whole. A common example happens when several employees are fiercely competing for a promotion. The effects of their struggle can range from tension in the workplace to malicious gossip, harassment, and even sabotaging other people's work. If you're caught up in this scenario, it's doubly important to remain professional under pressure. Focus on your own strengths and skills, not your rivals' weaknesses, and resist the temptation to try any underhanded tactics. You'll still need to work with your rivals afterwards, regardless of who received the promotion.

The employee who constantly has to prove that he or she is smarter, faster, and more competent than everyone else is another example of unhealthy competition. Fortunately, coworkers and employers don't usually tolerate such behavior for long. While obviously employers want their staff to be smart, fast, and competent, they don't like people who advertise the fact or who actively seek to diminish others. Work is not a zero-sum game like football, where one person's win equals another person's loss. People don't succeed by defeating their coworkers, but by ensuring that they are playing on the strongest possible team.

So how do you develop or become a healthcare dream team? You build it through cooperation. The ability to work well with others is a requirement for virtually every job, but this skill becomes crucial in the hectic and demanding healthcare work environment. The long hours and life-and-death responsibility that come with healthcare work are not going to change, but having coworkers that you can count on for help and support makes the job a whole lot easier.

A big part of being a good coworker is simply doing your own job well, and not forcing anyone else to pick up your slack. In addition to doing your rounds, why not mentor a less experienced colleague or advocate for better working conditions? Since nobody understands the needs of healthcare professionals better than other healthcare professionals, many hospitals have also begun peer support programs for stress management and healthy living. Cooperative work environments allow everyone to perform at their best.

But is it possible to be too cooperative? The answer is yes. Someone who refrains from pointing out a coworker's mistakes in order to avoid a confrontation or to avoid embarrassment, or who takes on too many shifts and becomes burnt out are examples. Although they mean well, ultimately these actions will harm the workplace.

Competition and cooperation may fall at opposite ends of the spectrum, but you need a good dose of both to accommodate different personality types and to create the best working environment for everyone.

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