by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.”
~ Thomas Stallkamp 
In the penultimate instalment of our six-part series, we reflect on the 5th myth of creativity, as first espoused by Professor Theresa Amabile: “Competition beats Collaboration”.

Myth #5: Competition Beats Collaboration

Diverse people going towards same targetCreativity and innovation scientist Professor R. Keith Sawyer1 cites a study by Baer, Leenders, Oldham and Vadera2. Published in 2010, the study found that as group competition intensified, group creativity increased. The underlying question is: Should we gang up to address the problem together, or should we gang up against each other before addressing the problem?

So does this mean that competition is always beneficial in drawing out employees’ creativity? Not necessarily.

1 team united towards same target


At the workplace, competition can make people more reluctant to share information. The situation inadvertently paves the way for negative elements to seep in, such as envy, suspicion, politicking and information hoarding. Just recall the various divide-and-conquer approaches that some leaders have tried to use, and you get the picture. In contrast, a culture of collaboration without competition enables the free cross-pollination of ideas that causes creativity to flourish naturally.

Although there is widespread belief – especially in the finance and high-tech industries – that internal competition fosters innovation, surveys conducted by Amabile and her team reveal that creativity suffers when members of a group compete rather than collaborate. The findings also show that it is the most creative teams which possess the confidence to share and debate ideas. But once people start competing in pursuit of recognition, they stop sharing information and exchanging ideas. This leads to a destructive scenario where there isn’t a single person in the whole organization who knows all the necessary information!


To summarize, the arguments that Amabile submits for the case of collaboration over competition are as follows:

(a) Collaboration beats competition in creativity because collaboration increases intellectual cross-pollination of ideas, whereas competition enhances restriction of ideas.

(b) Collaboration beats competition in creativity because collaboration minimizes evaluation apprehension, thus people are more open to sharing; whereas competition causes many people to shut down due to evaluation apprehension.

(c) Collaboration beats competition in creativity because collaboration spawns a culture of psychological safety and freedom, which inspires people to express their cognitive activity; whereas competition suppresses people’s creativity out of a fear of failure and ridicule.

  2. Baer, M., Leenders, R. T. A. J., Oldham, G. R., & Vadera, A. K. (2010). Win or lose the battle for creativity: The power and perils of intergroup competition. Academy of Management Journal, 53(4), 827-845


[Image 1 courtesy of JS Creations; Image 2 courtesy of JS Creations]