It is an accepted tenet of the modern workplace that flat structures are more likely to enhance collaborative behaviours and dissipate interpersonal friction. But a recent article at the Harvard Business Review has challenged that line of thought.

In the HBR piece, four academics explain the thrust of their spectacularly titled paper Escalation of Competition into Conflict in Competitive Networks of Formula One Drivers. Essentially, they argue, competition fuelled by status-similarity can be particularly destructive. “For those unfamiliar with Formula One,” the researchers write, “the first thing to know is that F1 crashes are usually not random.

“It’s not that a driver makes an unforced error at breakneck speed; it’s that two drivers, locked in one-on-one opposition, goad each other into increasingly reckless moves. At some point, both lose sight of the bigger competitive picture, becoming more intent on overtaking their immediate rival.”

A parallel occurs in the business world, they note, when two managers allow their rivalry to escalate into “public, tooth-and-claw conflict”, spawning costly damage to companies and careers alike. After studying 506 driver clashes that led to race-ending collisions, the researchers concluded that collisions “were particularly likely among pairs of drivers who were roughly equivalent in status. That is, their competitive histories across the entire racing season looked similar.”

In terms of what this could mean for business, they note that management models such as holacracy “promise a pragmatic, rational antidote” to ego-driven behaviour. “However, our Formula One findings suggest that leaders intending to promote an egalitarian culture by flattening hierarchy, removing job titles and so on may inadvertently exacerbate competition, rather than reining it in. Trying to banish distinctions among colleagues may have the unintended consequence of increasing competition.”

Are the researchers on to something, here?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It really depends upon what you want. Take a car showroom, for example. The only time employees in that environment would really need to collaborate is to cover each other for absences. Apart from that, they’re judged upon the basis of individual performance and ability. However, if we turn to non-sales environments, most of them typically require much closer collaboration between staff in order to get projects and initiatives over the line – and to make the business as a whole work.”

As such, Cooper notes, “the key is for each employee to understand that their own individual contribution must be excellent – because if everyone grasps that, it produces a synergistic result that is greater than the sum of the parts. Nothing raises your game more than colleagues who are determined to excel. If your colleagues are doing great work, and they’re relying upon you to do the same, and they’re disciplined, meeting deadlines and going that legendary extra mile, then of course that will impact upon your own delivery. Those are the circumstances that set the tone for a high-performing culture.”

Cooper adds: “The context in which these behaviours occur is hugely important, so on that basis I think it’s wrong to generalise. Let’s look at what works within the context of how a specific organisation operates. Let’s look at the outcomes that the organisation intends to deliver – and the appropriate ways of leading and managing the employees in order to achieve them.”

For further thoughts on managing performance, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Racing cars collision image courtesy of HodagMedia, via Shutterstock