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Do you need others to lose for you to win?

Take a deep breath. You're probably not in a fight to the death.

7 min read


Winners and losers

Unsplash/Luiz Hanfilaque

As we wind down the year, I’d like us to think about our professional interactions and how we view them. Specifically, do we think most situations can only be resolved with one winner and the rest losers? Or are most situations ones where something good can result for everyone (or, at least, most)?

Some things are zero-sum or winner-take-all, at least in the moment: Only one person is usually hired to fill a vacancy. Only one person can be elected to the presidency. If you get married, you can’t legally repeat it somewhere else the next weekend without doing some paperwork first. If you die, you’re dead.

But somehow in business, it’s commonly thought that most situations have a clear winner — and usually only one — and that if you don’t win, you lose. To that, I say, take a deep breath. You’re probably not in a fight to the death.

The first problem with the idea of a zero-sum world is with the metaphors we use. War is a common business parallel. War can be zero sum, but we know that’s not always the case, or World War I would still be called The Great War and we would be saying “Korea” instead of South and North.

Sports, another common way to analogize business, is certainly zero sum on the level of team outcomes, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that LeBron James was an out-and-out loser last season, for instance, or that Eli Manning truly is the greater warrior because he is 2-0 in Super Bowls against Tom Brady. Sports is one of the great visceral forms of competition, but what makes a great rivalry is not one competitor’s dominance, but the matchup of two great  — and successful — rivals. 

That team-versus-individual mindset is also important to keep in mind.

Yes, some deals are winner-take-all, and sometimes an industry or a product produces one or two winners and many losers (desktop-based browser search is Google’s; Boeing and Airbus rule their area of aircraft; the professional sports leagues do not worry about a direct competitor).

Even at the corporation level, the winner-take-all theory is often just not true. Vehicle manufacturing and sales isn’t the only industry with multiple healthy companies or providers, and there is endless innovation, turnover and entrepreneurialism that threaten the idea of a sustainable competitive advantage. On a global scale, despite all the conflict and disagreement in the world, extreme poverty has been greatly reduced (albeit not without some debate)  — and it’s clear that a poor country on another continent can improve itself without, say, income necessarily having to go down for Americans, in a literal sense.

Look at Nike, a company that was both fast-growing and on the brink of failure for most of its first 20 years. As Phil Knight relates in his memoir, there really were many life-or-death situations for the business. But was defeating everyone the ultimate goal? Was it getting rich? Knight says getting rich was never the goal, even if survival once was. But over time, that changed.

“I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficieniently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is — you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.”

On a smaller scale, a customer service representative is not trying to defeat the customer, even if there is a desired set of possible outcomes. Not every call will go that way, but perfection isn’t expected. Helping a co-worker get up to speed on a project doesn’t necessarily mean you lose. Giving a generous parental-leave policy doesn’t mean those people get free stuff others are scammed out of, or that the childless are automatically disadvantaged (even if there’s occasionally an exception to this)

Corporate intrigue aside, how much of the day for most employees is truly winner take all? Are there not many occasions for negotiation, mutually beneficial outcomes and compromise? Are casual conversations bad if something isn’t noticeably gained? How about getting along with co-workers, even those whom you don’t particularly like?

Furthermore, should employees and even managers substitute the company’s life goals for our own? As The Awl co-founder Choire Sicha once wrote, “Don’t spend a lot of time defending the place you work unless you’re accruing equity.”

Third, any great idea eventually needs backers, collaborators, early adopters, and all of those people must be able to give trust and have it received by the idea generator. The inventor does not hoard the idea, even if that person might get the biggest benefit.

Yes, it may be true that brainstorming should be done individually, but you still need to present that idea, get buy-in, win fans and secure resources, financial, technical and otherwise. As the comedian Bill Burr once caustically noted, Steve Jobs was the driver but not the sole architect of the iPhone.

“Did he sit down, like, ‘I’m going to invent the iPhone.’ He just sat there soldering, possibly welding, right? Didn’t he have like a crew of guys helping him out?”

Elon Musk is undoubtedly not designing SpaceX’s rockets or writing code for Tesla’s software. Oprah’s book club was not solely books written by Oprah.

Whether you buy the importance of personalities within teams, or that people might not be as naturally selfish as once thought, there’s ample everyday anecdotal evidence that we live lives that are not about zero-sum outcomes. The preceding examples are of famous people, but there are mundane, even silly examples everywhere.

\When I cross the street because the light has turned red, I can be reasonably confident that driver isn’t thinking in a zero-sum manner along the lines of “I need to get where I’m going as fast as possible, everyone else be damned!” This is because we have a shared societal understanding of signs, of laws, of norms and customs. Beyond what I’m seeing in front of me, I’m also trusting in the driver, and in the state and the police to enforce this.

If these norms and laws are violated, it should be shocking; when such transgressions are not shocking, there are bigger problems. 

I’m making what may be an obvious point, but what I want to emphasize in the new year is to, in tense moments, take a moment to ask, “Is this a situation where I can only win if the others lose?” If not, maybe you can redirect your energy and worry toward building relationships and giving unto others while still achieving the success you need.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. He’s on vacation this week, but most of the time you can follow him @SBLeaders @James_daSilva or by email.