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.
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.Share