Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Lessons from the Whooping Crane: What a Healthy Competitive Working Style Looks Like

Whooping cranes in flight

Whooping cranes in flight (Photo credit: USFWS Mountain Prairie)

From the Winter 2012-2013 issue of Bird Conservation, Joseph Duff, C.E.O. of Operation Migration, writes:

The lead bird does most of the work, but not from any sense of duty. Instead, he is out front because he is the strongest and most aggressive and has pushed his way to the lead. The bird behind can feel the lift created by the vortices his wingtips generate, and instinctively learns to take advantage of that assistance by flying just off to one side. Each bird in the row adds to that wake, creating more lift for the one behind until the last bird in the row adds to that wake, creating more lift for the one behind until the last bird is gaining the most benefit. Each individual pushes its way forward according to endurance. That aggressive behavior and their instinct to find the easiest way to fly gives the flock a common endurance so the weaker birds can keep up with the strongest. Throughout the line, birds will challenge the one ahead of them much like a competitive cyclist will tuck in behind the leader, waiting for an opportunity to steal the lead when he shows signs of fatigue. Without that ability, the flock could not stay together.

People are generally capable of working in a cooperative or competitive fashion. Nevertheless, some learn that they are more driven to do their best work one way more than the other. I’ve never heard anyone criticize anyone for being too cooperative or discuss the downsides of cooperating “too much,” however the same is not true when we are considering competitiveness. Whenever someone questions why certain traits should exist at all and muses that the world would be a better place if these traits didn’t exist, I’ve always responded with, “Mother Nature doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket.”

As the whooping crane example beautifully illustrates, there are conditions under which competition is healthy and beneficial to all. Upon sharing this example with others, people immediately pick up on the fact that the lead birds aren’t bashing into their fellow competitors to block them from trying to take the lead. This is what good sportsmanship looks like. Also, notice that the result of competition benefits the others. This is how you can tell healthy competitiveness and unhealthy competitiveness apart. Ask yourself what kind of impact it has. Is it positive or negative?

So, if you happen to have what’s called a dominant or enterprising personality, the good news is that there is room for you in the world of work. Trying to find your niche? Whatever your personality type, check out the following for some pointers:

Finally, a word of warning about unhealthy competitiveness from Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. at Psychology Today:

All work environments involve some degree of competition. Healthy competition that is balanced with a sense of mutual respect and commitment to common goals can spur people to do their best work. However, if the competition involves nasty, sneaky, or otherwise ruthless behavior on an ongoing basis, this can undermine the health and performance of employees or group members. Research with animals suggests that those at the top of the hierarchy have better health if their leadership position is stable, but worse health if it unstable. Constantly having to protect your position and territory against competitors can take a toll on the body and mind of humans as well.

Check out Dr. Greenberg’s entry in its entirety for tips on how to handle those who engage in unhealthy, competitive behavior!

Finally, a note to readers:

I’ve now included an Events page where educational events pertaining to work innovations are listed. As a new team member at Better Collaboration, I’m pleased to announce an upcoming videoconference on telework productivity happening Monday, April 8th from 1:00pm-2:30pm Eastern time (EST). There is still time to register! Check the Events page or click here to access more information about this. Or, alternatively, visit and email if you have any questions. Check out the services offered and, if you’re a member of, join the Can Telework be Productive? meetup group!

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