'Top Dog': Unselfish Teamwork Is Overrated

Top Dog argues that healthy workplace competition is the key to success
Illustration by Commercial Type

Search for the phrase “team player” on Monster.com and thousands of posts come up listing it as a necessity for the job in question. Lawyers and accountants, machinists and bakers, even night-shift delivery drivers—lonely jobs, to be sure—are all expected to work well in groups and communicate with ease.

According to Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, this emphasis on teamwork is a mistake. It turns off the top applicants, who, rightly or wrongly, believe all that collaboration means they won’t have a chance to stand out. “They’ll look for opportunities where they can shine,” write Bronson and Merryman, “where they feel responsible for their destiny.”

In Bronson and Merryman’s ode to fire in the belly, the authors explain how rivalry helps us focus, encourages us to take risks, and keeps us motivated. While their argument is an endorsement of the you-can-do-it! American spirit, this isn’t a policy book or a call for broad social action—the authors are primarily concerned with the success of individuals and companies. Still, it’s hard not to read Top Dog as an implied indictment of American complacency over the last several decades, as well as the failures of an educational system that can be concerned more with self-esteem than with honest assessment. (If you’ve attended a school play recently, you’ll notice that every kid has an equally big part, so as not to upset the tone-deaf.)

How do we reconcile the benefits of competition with the inherent coordination and cooperation that most workplaces require? Top Dog posits that the structure of office teams matters: They should be small, with each role clearly defined so every employee has a level of ownership and pride. Think of a military operation, a football game, or any episode of Glee. In this context, it’s still necessary to get along with office mates. No one likes working with a jerk. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to be friends; Bronson and Merryman say the reverse is true—teams working on successful projects aren’t fazed by disagreement or friction.

For those who thrive in aggressive atmospheres, this is all very inspiring. The caveat is that not all people do. Competition can be unduly stressful. Some people try to avoid it entirely. And for reasons to do with both nature and nurture, the noncombative set tends to be female.

The authors linger on the gender divide, although their insights aren’t particularly novel. Women, they say, tend to focus on the odds of winning; men tend to focus on what they’ll win. And when people think of the reward rather than the risk, they’re more willing to roll the dice. Men are overconfident: They think they can triumph even when all the empirical evidence says the opposite. While David faces off with Goliath, a woman stands back and says, “I don’t know, he looks kinda big.”

In a culture that celebrates the gambler who defies the odds, it’s tempting to dismiss the cautious as ineffectual buzz kills. Yet what’s perceived as timidity may be the accurate reading of risk. When women do put their stake in the ground, they fight as fiercely and often more successfully than men, perhaps because they’re choosing battles they’re more likely to win. And what team couldn’t use a bit of that?

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