The answer is: both.

Why do our exchanges with friends look so different from our transactions with customers, suppliers, or business partners? Why would we never pay a family member to do the same work we compensate strangers for doing?

Within families or close friendship groups, we collaborate. Mostly, we think of ourselves as ‘playing on the same team,’ economically. So we act like a unit. But we often count people outside our circle of friends and family as competitors. So, we give them what we need to give while we take what we’re able to take.

From this perspective, the marketplace is the opposite of the home. It’s where collaborative groups compete with one another for scarce resources.

And there’s some truth to this view. But if we think that competition is the final word on what business is all about, we’re missing the bigger picture.

As humans, we belong together. We play on the same team. Seen from the global level of organizational complexity, business is all about collaborating for our common good. And that collaboration happens through competition, not in spite of it.

Think of friends playing a game: their friendship happens through the competition. If their relationship boiled down to the game, they’d simply be frenemies. But they’re not. Their game is part of a bigger enterprise. Competition at a lower level feeds collaboration at a higher one. Business is like that too, when we see it in context.

Competition is a game within the larger adventure of human collaboration.

Here’s a metaphor: each cell of your body is a unit. It’s one thing. The cell wall is the boundary that defines what’s in and what’s out. So, from the perspective of any individual cell, it’s in competition with other cells for scarce resources. But our cells cannot survive alone. Together, they make up tissues and organs. Seen from these higher levels, competition at the lower level is really about collaboration for a shared purpose.

This pattern repeats itself over and over again as complexity increases. Individual humans seem to be in competition with one another–until they acknowledge that they belong together in groups. Tribes seem to be in competition with other tribes–until they recognize that they belong together in a larger political community. Nations seem to be in competition with other nations–until they see that they belong together in a global ecosystem.

What difference does this pattern make for organizations? Teams, departments, or divisions sometimes fall into self-defeating rivalries because their members lose sight of the bigger picture. Challenging people to own up to their place in a collaborative venture that’s inspired by playful competition can convert those negative forces into positive energy.

It’s hard to keep the higher perspective–especially when the people around us don’t seem to share it. But learning how to compete on lower levels while never losing sight of our shared purposes on higher ones can transform our organizations.