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Resist the urge to adopt a zero-sum mentality

Zero-sum outcomes are part of life, but being stuck in that mentality isn't a good thing.

6 min read


Resist the urge to adopt a zero-sum mentality

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Two years ago, I wrote here how people overestimate how much of our lives involves zero-sum outcomes. This was a year or so after arguing that the zero-sum, nasty nature of politics was not reflective of most in-life situations.

I don’t think this message took, and I get it. Our politics, social media and sports are structured so that winning (and your enemies losing) is the primary form of validation, and precious little of our culture is exempt from all of those forces. Add to that whatever personal conflicts or challenges we’re grappling with, and it can be hard to feel like there’s any room for multiple winners, much less cooperation and compromise.

Last night, the most upside-down World Series in history ended with the Washington Nationals winning Game 7 over the Houston Astros. There have been 115 such series: This is the first in which the home team won zero games. Every game resulted in sadness for the fans there. (This is a very baseball thing to do, by the way)

And so I want to focus on sports losers today, even though they operate in a zero-sum profession, to argue again that this mentality can be harmful to your teams and organizations.

I wonder how the Astros executives are feeling today. They’ve been in the spotlight a lot lately, mostly due to their inability to apologize, and they’re an organization that embraces the zero-sum game. As general manager Jeff Luhnow told McKinsey (which has consulted for the team):

We’re in a zero-sum industry. And I know a lot of industries feel that way—where any advantage you gain has to, by definition, come at someone else’s disadvantage. For us, we win a game, someone else loses. For us, the competitive arena moved to being able to implement analytics insights into the field. And again, that’s the most difficult thing to do as an organization. Because, at least at the start, the players aren’t going to want to do it. The coaching staff’s not going to want to do it. 

If we’re not making some mistakes along the way, we’re not being aggressive enough.

This is fine as far as it goes. Houston has a reputation as a hard-nosed organization, but even Luhnow admits how the team had to adjust its approach to win over players and staff. It wasn’t just about athletes not understanding analytics; there was literally a language barrier for many of them. That’s adapting to circumstances and people, not some extreme of zero-sum thinking that would say, “Accept this or you’re gone.”

But strictly going by a zero-sum definition, the Astros have been losers for two years in a row since that 2017 World Series win. I hope team executives don’t feel that way today. Disappointed, sure. But adopting the Ricky Bobby philosophy of “If you ain’t first, you’re last” is a ridiculous way to end the discussion.

Of course the organization is a winner — the Astros are better off in results, and probably revenue and morale, than five years ago. The fans feel better and are getting more value for their dollar and their emotions, The players are benefiting, too, in a variety of ways.

Similarly, the Washington Nationals have been defined this decade by their inability to win a playoff series. That is not a results-based view — that’s based off of one result.

The 2010s were a huge decade for the team. Eight straight winning seasons (versus zero before that), higher attendance than a decade ago, a front office capable of making smart draft picks, trades and free agent signings, not to mention the best mascot collection in baseball.

Imagine if we applied this to other fields. Sorry, Chevron engineers, your company is smaller than ExxonMobil, so you’re losers. Sorry, Brown and Princeton, you’re not Harvard and Yale (although the Supreme Court apparently is out of reach). Sorry, sales team. One of you was our top seller — everyone else failed.

Of course, most of us don’t take that view. Few of us embrace a monopolistic society, for one thing. But the larger lesson is that excellence can be found in many places, and all of us can fulfill our potential. Here are a few key things to consider:

Focus on being the best you can be. Most people like to win, but do we all fulfill our potential? Are we able to grow as people and professionals. Managers often can’t affect the overall outcome or external factors, but they can be a guide and resource for helping their teams be the best possible version of themselves.

Growth is independent of outcomes. Self-improvement, personal and professional growth and achieving our potential are not zero sum. You don’t read books to show you’re the world’s best reader — you do so to learn, expand your horizons and hopefully improve as a person. Training and development are not inherently wasteful expenses, either. Yes, you want to achieve results, but process comes first. Again, this is an area where managers can have influence, even if indirectly.

Use losses as an opportunity. If a failure or setback does occur, that’s the time for managers to be honest about what went wrong, but also ask, “What can we learn?”

Even if someone made a big mistake to cause the problem, assigning blame is not the only action you can take. Trent Grisham of the Milwaukee Brewers made a key error that helped the Nationals win the wild card game nearly a month ago. He knew he messed up. Did the team castigate him? No. As teammate Josh Hader said:

“It happens, it’s baseball,” Hader said. “That’s not anything on him. It comes down to me making my pitches. If I didn’t walk those guys, that opportunity wouldn’t have even came. It’s no blame on him at all.”

Every day is a new day. Baseball will be back soon enough. Another election is on the horizon. Another sales deal will present itself. Another deadline will be upon us. The endless grind of work can be demoralizing, but precious little is final. Help your employees see that there is a next time, and help them prepare for it.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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