The first step to creating a winning culture is to stop talking about winning entirely. What’s one thing that’s automatically true, by definition, when someone wins? Someone else must lose.
Now, I’m sure by now you’re already trying to think of reasons to defend why this doesn’t really apply to whatever situation. Bear with me here and let me explain.
Winning is a very familiar concept to us
Winning is a concept that’s so common, so widespread, so engrained in our everyday lives that we don’t even think about it. It’s reflected back at us in so many ways and in so many places. Winning is ‘normal’ and familiar to us. So familiar, we don’t even notice it and how it affects us.
When we see someone praised as a winner, we automatically and unconsciously feel like a loser. It’s not a choice we have as that feeling is baked into our society and reflected back at us over and over.
Winning is an emotional rollercoaster
Winning creates a positive feeling in us, not just a thought or idea. In the same way, losing also creates a feeling – a negative one. A feeling of failure – and there are two main responses to this feeling. Giving up, or fighting to win. To what lengths will people go to win, and how does that affect others? When someone who feels like a loser and fights to win, they create more people who feel like losers who then either give up or try to win, creating this ongoing cycle. While it may appear to motivate people and encourage progress, one must wonder if it’s the best or most emotionally healthy way?
Someone who feels like a loser wants to be a winner, so they become motivated to compete to win. Or they simply give up. Do we then say “well, that’s too bad for you I guess”? Are we not fooling ourselves into thinking this is a positive and productive way to improve motivation in the workplace?
Winning can create a division between people
The concept of winning creates a division of ‘sides’ – it’s ‘us’ vs ‘them’. This is how it works out there in society most of the time. Teams of people compete with each other and the outcome is glory for the winners and disappointment for the losers.
This context and connotation gets brought into the workplace. We unknowingly and unconsciously create ‘enemies’ or adversaries between ourselves by creating competition. This competition has a lot in common with conflict and fighting – people are fighting to win and fighting to not lose. They may do things in their own selfish interest to win so that they’re rewarded by positive feelings and emotions. People also fight to win in order to avoid the fear of experiencing negative emotions.
Fighting against vs fighting for something
We mistakenly fight each other when we should all be fighting against a common challenge, or fighting for a solution, goal or vision. When the stakes are either win or lose, there is less incentive to collaborate and more incentive to act selfishly or even sabotage others. This doesn’t mean people are bad – it’s just a function of human nature and how we’ve set up our society.
In the workplace, the ideal situation is when the entire team is aligned in facing the same challenges, goals and visions. Everyone stands side by side facing the same challenge together. A culture of ‘winning’ doesn’t achieve this, even if we preface it as ‘friendly competition’. It creates more opportunity for conflict and competition between team members and reluctance to share information or assistance.
It’s easy enough to say ‘this is just friendly competition’, but not so easy to separate out and prevent people from engaging their individual survival mechanisms leading to a more interpersonal sort of conflict. Friendly competition needs to be engineered with aspects of human nature in mind to avoid our tendency to attack each other in order to avoid emotional pain.
Practical suggestions for improving efficiency in the workplace
In order to create a culture where the team is aligned and motivated, consider the following:
- Prioritize individual recognition over praise or award
- Celebrate and reward business achievements where everyone enjoys the ‘win’ together
- Recognize collaboration and cooperation
- Support a culture of giving, sharing and helping
- Recognize and support learning and development
- Actively encourage equal participation and inclusion
- Remove situations that cause divisions between people
- Create a time and place for open and honest communication
- Try not to use individual incentive programs and competitions to reward individual contributions when possible (perhaps there are other creative ways to do this that doesn’t result in creating negative emotional triggers)
- Be aware of the sorts of behaviours you may be incentivizing without meaning to (selfishness, competition over cooperation, sabotage, political or social posturing, perception of favouritism, favouring certain kinds of personality over others, secretive behaviour, dishonesty or misdirection between people, etc.
Examples of non-competitive situations in the workplace
The following are a few hypothetical workplace examples just to illustrate some of the points from this article.
Naveen noticed that Mark was having trouble with his work and that he seemed to be frustrated. Naveen asked Mark how he could help, and supported Mark to overcome the issue he was having. The manager recognized both Naveen and Mark for having produced work that was beneficial to the company, emphasizing their teamwork without pointing out the individual contributions of each person specifically. The manager thanked Naveen in private for his initiative to help Mark.
Lydia worked late to finish a task with a sudden and important deadline and did a great job. The manager recognized Lydia by letting the team know what Lydia did and how it improved the outcome for the company. The manager allowed Lydia to present her work to the team. By stating the contribution Lydia made and how it contributes to the overall team goals without providing a specific ‘reward’ (praise, admiration, award). This approach creates less chance the rest of the team will feel like they didn’t win and more encouragement to follow Lydia’s example to receive fair recognition.
Joe is upset, angry and feels frustrated. He isn’t producing good work and he’s creating conflicts with other employees. As an aside, this may be a sign Joe feels like a loser or failure in some way – but we can’t assume anything specifically. The manager calls a private meeting with Joe and asks him about how he is feeling, and how he thinks the company can support him or help him. The manager listens, acknowledges Joe’s feelings and concerns, and then shares with Joe that his behaviours not acceptable – and asks how he thinks the situation can be improved. This gives Joe a feeling of power and control over his own situation, while still asserting that something must change. It also helps Joe feel like he is being heard and cared about.
Sometimes, a person who is struggling may need help or support. If a person already feels down, or like they’re a failure – immediate discipline or blame will only compound that feeling and make things worse. Ignoring an obvious issue and being silent can be even more damaging to the situation. It probably costs the company a lot more to fire Joe, and try to hire and train a replacement than it would to remediate the situation. Remember, this isn’t a situation where the manager must fight to ‘win’ and defeat the problematic behaviour of the employee. Both parties can align to work together, facing off against the behaviour and not the person.
Breaking out of the cycle
To conclude, it’s hard to break out of cycles and patterns that are so familiar to us they just seem normal and obvious. What’s important to recognize is that even if something is normal, common or widespread – it doesn’t mean it’s the best or most effective way. It also means we have to think a lot more carefully about how we do things because the link between what we do and the impact on people isn’t so obvious.
By understanding a little bit about human psychology, we can make small changes in the way we do things in order to minimize unintended and unwanted feelings, emotions and behaviours. By doing this, we are vastly expanding the value of our human capital in the workplace, improving efficiency, effectiveness and morale.
If you want to encourage some healthy or friendly competition in your workplace, be sure to remember how the concept of winning may automatically and subconsciously make people afraid to lose. That emotional response can create unwanted and unproductive behaviours.
I’d like to ask, have you noticed signs of competitiveness in your workplace that lead to conflict or negative feelings in your team? Has this competitiveness been engineered or engrained in your culture deliberately, or unintentionally?