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Build Your Career Get Ahead

Friend or Foe? In Business, It's Both, Actually

Friend or Foe? In Business, It's Both, Actually
Credit: Yurii Andreichyn/Shutterstock

Are you my friend, my rival, or both? Maurice Schweitzer and Adam Galinsky, a pair of social psychologists who study behavioral decision-making, posit that in every relationship we are at once cooperating and competing with one another. Schweitzer and Galinsky penned a book on the subject, entitled "Friend or Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both," which explores real-world case studies to illustrate the dynamics between rivalry and coordination. Their conclusions about power relations and social comparisons offer valuable insights for entrepreneurs and business professionals. So, Business News Daily caught up with Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, to find out what the implications of his research are for the business world.

Business News Daily: How did you become interested in the dynamics of competition and cooperation?

Maurice Schweitzer: It's been a long-standing interest. It started when I was in grad school studying diversity and how diverse groups make better decisions, but also engage in more conflict. It also grew [while I was] doing research on negotiations, power, social hierarchy and a number of other characteristics.

All of our relationships are characterized by this tension [between competition and cooperation]. The second sort of following idea is that because every relationship has these features, knowledge of that helps us navigate our social world much more effectively and we can handle these situations and our emotional response more effectively.

BND: How do your findings relate to the business world?

MS: There are a lot of implications. One of the things about the book is that it has a coherent theme, but it's like 11 books in one. We talk about power, hierarchy, trust, deception, apologies, perspective taking, entrepreneurs, diversity and negotiations. A number of the findings shown in the literature is that we think of power as a psychological variable and structural variable … and we get better outcomes in business and interviews when we think about the times we've had the power and can tap into that confidence.

We also developed this idea of when hierarchy helps and when it hurts. When [hierarchy] impacts [an organization] negatively it prevents innovation, the expression of ideas, and information flow. When there are strong hierarchies, information doesn't reach the top. When we need to generate ideas we can't have any hierarchy. We can't have leaders, only facilitators. But, at the idea implementation stage, we need hierarchy to coordinate and integrate behavior … so, we have to figure out how to have the right hierarchy at the right time.

BND: What are some lessons business owners or professionals could learn from your book?

MS: One example is the interview. We want to be confident, but we want to acknowledge the authority on the other side of the table and be deferential. Hierarchy is a good example again. It helps reduce conflict because it establishes who is in charge, but we can't have too strong a hierarchy because they reduce conflict too much and might restrict progress.

BND: Any theories on why the popular focus is typically on competition in business when cooperation can prove just as important?

MS: It's true that competition can be truly advantageous for people, especially in the short run. But it's again part of that bifurcating mind that we have. If you think, 'How do I get ahead?' you can focus on competition or cooperation, but in reality it's balancing both forces that leads to success. It takes a lot of nuance and complexity to do that, and the human mind likes simplicity. But once you become practiced at recognizing that every relationship has these characteristics, it becomes a lot easier to naturally recognize them.

The other thing that's a running theme in the book that's important is perspective-taking. It's a really uniquely human capacity to get inside the heads of other people and know what they're thinking. It can help us be a better competitor by knowing what someone's next move is, but it can also help us understand other people and be a better cooperator. Leaders can often fail to take other people's perspectives because they don't have to; they're the leader. But taking others' perspectives can help you lead more effectively and better understand your team.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.