A Better Definition of Winning

Written by:

Most of us like to win, yet our beliefs about winning are posing a huge risk to our organizations. We believe that winning requires that we make someone else lose. This means that in order to win, we actively harm the other players or at least ensure that we don’t help them, even when helping them would benefit a greater cause. We teach this mode of winning to our children in schools and our sports exemplify it. At the same time, we lament that lack of collaboration is harming our businesses and the political arena of our nations. I propose a better definition of winning is one where high achievement is rewarded, and comparison amongst the players is even fostered, yet it doesn’t require making someone else lose.

Winning within a Business Organization

I’ve seen many businesses erroneously foster competition among their employees, such as what I found when I first assumed the CIO role for a large corporation. The organization had “lead” positions that commanded higher pay and authority, but they were limited in number, so employees competed for them. For example, we had fifty Project Managers but only five Lead Project Managers. The idea was that the five Leads were the best of the fifty and would be responsible for establishing best practices for the entire group, in addition to leading projects. This same structure was in place for all positions, including business analysts, developers, help desk technicians, etc. It caused huge problems.

In the complex world of a large corporation, nothing exists in isolation, especially projects. We needed project managers (and all employees) to collaborate. There were timeline dependencies across different projects that needed to be coordinated, and software created by one project needed to integrate with software created by other projects, yet the teams didn’t want to help each other because it would make someone else’s project look good. They were in competition and wanted their own project to look the best. So we restructured the positions so that winning one didn’t require that someone else lost.

We removed the limits on how many people could become a Lead, yet made the criteria to earn a Lead position very challenging. In order to earn one, a person needed to demonstrate a history of establishing best practices that helped the entire company. For example, if a Project Manager came up with a better method to estimate project timelines or a developer built standard templates to reduce development time, and if they had a history of sharing such improvements across the company, they would earn a Lead title. This took the focus off of competing with each other for a few coveted spots and put the focus on coming up with solutions for the common good. This definition of winning required high achievement that inspired motivation, but it didn’t require that someone else lose. Because the criteria was so challenging, we still had roughly the same number of Leads, yet the collaboration mushroomed.

Societal Implications

This concept can be modeled more broadly in society to reduce our inclination to create win-lose scenarios, while still providing motivation to achieve. For example, sports reflect and help set the norms of a society, and it’s telling that almost all of our sports require that in order to win you must make the other players lose. Why don’t we structure our sports similar to mountain climbing, where you have to have great skill and stamina to make it to the top, but you don’t have to make someone else lose in order to win?

Our children learn our societal norms in school. Why limit the number of A’s or grade on a curve that limits the number of A’s? This discourages students from helping each other. We can still reward high achievement by setting challenging criteria to earn an A.

You can use your own body to feel the difference between working to make someone else lose vs. working to perform your best. The win-lose competition introduces negative emotions of aggression and fear, and negative emotions always detract from performance. I can recall working for companies that priced their products with the specific intent of putting competitors out of business and beat the lowest prices out of vendors with no regard for their survival. These tactics always generated a palpable negativity in the organization that weakened the performance of its employees. On the other hand, organizations that concentrate on performing their best or even collaborate with other players create a positive energy that fosters the highest levels of cognitive and creative abilities.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
  Related Articles


  1. John Allcorn  February 13, 2012

    Many or most businesses operate in competitive environments where Darwinian principals governing survival apply. Structures within the organization that reward true leadership as expounded by Jackie are key to its long term survival.
    The selection metrics that are used for personnel recruitment should reflect this: profiling to employ external rather than internal competitors. Latter requires strong HR input, direction and governance as a core part of the organization’s ethos…… not easy in short term profit driven environments.

  2. Christopher Wiseman  February 13, 2012

    Excellent question Jackie! Thanks for putting it out there and getting people think about their concepts of the win-loss vs. win-win dynamic. Very early on in my career as a Business Coach, I learned how important it was to help business owners understand this at a deeper level. In the example you used in your article about predatory pricing just to put a competitor out of business, that is the classic winner take all, win-lose = lose-lose scenario. In other words, its an abusive win employed for the sake of winning, as if my son’s little league team played against the Oakland A’s in the World Series.

    The win-lose = win-win-win, happens when business compete and give it their all, creating meaningful competition that raises the bar for both companies and creates a win for the consumer. The loss is a stick but playing for love of the game and something greater than your own company is a huge carrot. I count it as a win in my column as a Coach when my clients arrive at the destination that Christina mentioned which is knowing that either a win or a loss is a learning experience and in finding the hidden loss/win, is what makes my Client a champion, not just a mere winner or loser.

  3. Stephen Schele  February 15, 2012

    In chess, it’s harder to play for a tie than for a win. But often, that is indeed the appropriate strategy, — and it’s a specific skill set. Playing for a tie in the work world seems a worthy area for development.

  4. David Mullin  February 15, 2012

    “I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light that I have.” (Abraham Lincoln)

    Stand with us.

  5. Glen Fahs  February 15, 2012

    Our society teaches win-lose thinking in business, and especially in sports and politics. The most respected elected officials used to be consensus builders. Now few are. We teach our kids that “winning is the only thing.” And then we expect team work across departments. And we get it rarely.

    But more organizations are supporting community volunteering, work-life balance and flexible work arrangements both because they are consistent with our values and because they improve the bottom line.

    It takes great leadership to get others to commit to the Big Team rather than the little team, to take risks about doing things consistent with values rather than rules, and to support others with no expectation of gain. People relax and have fun when commitment replaces compliance and trust is widely shared. I have seen organizations change from win-lose to win-win. That is consistent with the purpose of ODN.

  6. Mark Adams  February 15, 2012

    I am amused how we use two concepts (winning and competition) as concepts where to prevail means someone has to suffer some form of setback. The notion of winning can be placed within at least conceptual contexts:

    First is the sports like context: Here there are clearly winners and losers. The nature of the activity defines that this is so.

    Second is meeting and beating some form of standard or question. I can win at an exam without it in anyway being a comment on anyone else’s relative success. I can beat a standard the same way. I can accomplish superlative musical recital without diminishing the best of others before or after my performance.

    Even in sports, I can beat a previous personal best.

    I often think we are almost sloppy in how we use powerful emotive terms and concepts. We use them without being clear (to ourselves and others) about the applicable context.

    So in organizations, the notion of winning can be set up so there are not losers with winners. We have choices how we design social systems that are goal achievement oriented.


  7. Christina Venter  February 15, 2012

    Hallo Jackie. Personally we should all be winners depending from which angle we look at what is being won or lost. In every win their is a hidden loss and in every loss there is a hidden win. A true winner never harms anyone and a true losser is never sour.

  8. Tibor Novak  February 15, 2012

    It is very likely that we are both in the camp of the converted and can view the same thing from different vantage points. In my view, it is the part of our psyche referred to as the Ego that is responsible for preventing us from cooperating, sharing and working towards Win-Win. I believe our Ego is programmed to dominate and control whenever it is possible and the economic and business structure not only provides a fertile ground for this tendency to thrive and flourish but relies on the energy and predictability it generates for its very existence.

  9. Robert  February 16, 2012

    I think the hope for a win-win situation can create an environment of trust, but only after a few sustained successes. I believe our next stage of evolution needs to be driven not by changes in our environment, but by our desire to evolve emotionally and intellectually. Simply put, we need to evolve from the inside-out v. the outside-in to overcome this issue. Resources all around us are becoming scarce. I’m convinced that organizations can achieve this as successfully, as long as the behavior is reinforced, safe (low-risk) and expected. Others are right, though: ego(s) is/are the biggest show-stopper. Unless those within the organization are willing to let go of egotistical gratification, there will always be “losers” within organizations.

  10. Hans Norden  February 16, 2012

    Winning or loosing depends on the definition of the game. If the objective is to come in first or on top of your class, then obviously the winner gains what the losers loose. This principle is based on scarcity; there’s only one first place. In business however, we can choose to believe in scarcity or abundance. We can choose to adopt an attitude of competition or cooperation. The principle for cooperation (win-win outcomes) is based on opposing exposures. Let me give you an example. We have heard about airlines hedging or fixing their fuel price for 3, 6 or 9 months into the future. Oil companies want to hedge against prices dropping, whereas airlines want to protect their business against price rises. Therefore, they can meet in the middle and make a contractual agreement that is win-win. Any other business can do the same with their target audience. We just have to recognize that not anybody with purchasing power is the right client for our business. The art of business is to find clients that resonate with us; who believe in values that we believe it. Some like esthetics and others couldn’t care less and will not pay for it. So, another business can cater to that target audience. The advantage is that you have more happy customers that are repeat buyers and they bring you your profit margins; not the naggers who are outside your target audience.
    I highly recommend reading anything by, or about Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Cooperation is a form of live-and-let-live that removes unnecessary friction and conflict from the business system, which enhances your effectiveness and efficiency. Make employees happy, allow them joy and pride of workmanship, which makes them alert and pro-active when something is going wrong.

    For more info, please click here: http://anticipatedoutcome.com

  11. Sean Benfield  February 16, 2012

    I think it’s entirely possible to view activities in a win/win situation, rather than a win must also equal a loss. It truly depends on what stage of culture the collective group is operating under. If the competitors have the same noble cause (Stage 4), there is a greater probability that the wins will be collaborative to benefit the cause. Jeter & A-Rod will always compete against each other for the best batting stats but each of their personal wins contribute to the greater purpose of the team. If a tribe is operating under a “me” culture, (Stage 3 – metaphorically, two teams playing against each other) there is more probability that one group’s wins must correlate with another’s losses.

  12. Jeanne Hess  February 16, 2012

    I address this in my book, Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games (Balboa Press, 2012) as I redefine words that are traditionally used in sport to divide and separate. After the redefinition, the reader might have a new thought, or new consciousness about the intent. For example, “Competition” in our culture is traditionally perceived as a negative – to work against something or someone. Taking “Competition” back to its Latin root, we see it means ‘to work with’. TO work WITH someone is much different that to work AGAINST someone. Big paradigm shift for players, teams, coaches, fans, officials and even parents.

  13. Susan Berg  February 20, 2012

    From “The Science of Getting Rich,” by Wallace D. Wattles:

    You are to become a creator, not a competitor; you are going to get what you want, but in such a way that when you get it every other man(woman) will have more than he has now…. Riches secured on the competitve plane are never satisfactory or permanent; they are yours to-day (sic), and another’s tomorrow. Remember, if you are to become rich in a scientific and certain way, you must rise entirely out of the competitive thought. You must never think for a moment that the supply is limited… You are not seeking any thing that is possessed by anybody else.

    This book was written about 100 years ago! I was made aware of this book through the DVD, “The Secret.”

  14. Mindy Aisling  February 23, 2012

    The best “Wins” are when the other person/company/organization “Wins” too!

    When each party can get clear on their NEEDS, then we are only limited by our own creativity.

    The problem is that usually, people bring their STRATAGIES to the table, they get stuck on them, and then communication stops.

    I love helping people create win/wins, and creating them myself – what a great experience!


Add a Comment