Sometimes It’s Better Not to Win

Posted 03.03.2010

Hockey-ca It’s Wednesday and I still find myself drifting back to the gold medal hockey showdown between Canada and the U.S. on Sunday’s closing day of the Vancouver Olympics. Like a lot of other casual hockey fans, I found myself utterly swept away by the excitement of the U.S. comeback to tie the game in the last seconds of regulation and then the game winning shot in overtime by the latest Canadian hockey hero, Sidney Crosby. Equal to the excitement was the emotional experience of watching the Canadian fans in the arena sing “O Canada” with their winning team and all their hearts. (On Monday morning, the New York Times ran a moving article on what hockey means to Canada. It’s worth reading.)

As I watched the Canadians celebrate, I doubt I was alone in thinking that sometimes it’s better not to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting for a second that the Americans didn’t play their skates off and give it everything they had. It would have been great to see them win. But, no one wins all the time, and, sometimes, intentionally or not, you serve the greater good when you don’t win.

In the world outside of sports, it’s easy to get caught up in a “must win all the time,” approach and mentality. There are a lot of factors in our culture and in the personality traits of many people who end up in leadership roles that reinforce a reflexive response to win. Especially when you’re in a long term relationship with the other party, it’s important to mindful of other options besides going for the win.

Here are four of them:

I draw on the Thomas-Kilman conflict mode instrument (TKI) in offering these options.  Modifying their model slightly, you can think of relationship and conflict management turning on two axes – the vertical axis is the drive for results and the horizontal is the desire to build relationships. There are five basic styles based on where you map yourself on the chart.

The Competitive or Win/Lose style is high on results and low on relationships. This is the style that’s all about winning. It’s a good option in certain situations, but like the other four styles, it’s not always the answer.

The Avoiding or Lose/Lose style is low on both results and relationships. Sometimes this is the best way to go. Not everything is worth engagement.

The Accommodating or Lose/Win style is low on results and high on relationships. It’s a good way to go when you want to build a relationship by making a concession or granting a favor. Like the rest of the styles, it can lead to poor results when overused.

The Compromising or Win/Win style is at the mid point on both results and relationships. It’s the style to use when it’s important for both sides to get some of what they want.

The Cooperative or Win/Win style is high on both results and relationships.  By taking the time to really understand each other’s interests, both parties are likely to get more of what they want (hence the use of upper case W’s on Win/Win).

Models like the TKI are useful, I think, because they raise our awareness of options that exist beyond whatever our default response is likely to be.  As much fun as it is to win, it’s not always the best outcome. It all depends on what you’re trying to do and what’s important to you in the long run.

What’s your take? Any other models or ways of thinking you’d recommend to raise self-awareness and move beyond the default response?