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Who in Your Organization is Playing the Zero-Sum Game?

June 23, 2014

Organizational Strategy for Breakthrough PerformanceA zero-sum game requires a winner and a loser. We all play this game, perhaps unintentionally.

It is tempting to play the zero-sum game. You’ve seen a few of the really good players. They might rise very quickly in the organization without justification or credibility.  Some are not on the rising-star track yet but they’ve been on a job-hopping journey that would make a rabbit tired.

A Zero-Sum Game is more a mindset that controls our behavior, and for many of us, limits us from reaching our full potential. Contrary to what you might see with the occasional ladder-climber, most who maintain the zero-sum game end up losing in the end.

In the political world of any organization, with limited resources (people, money, time), it is easy to become emotionally tied to this mindset. For example, a company has limited money to support all the change requirement projects necessary. As an executive over one division or business unit, you see another business unit getting all the big money and your needs are an after thought. The other business unit won it all and you got nothing.

Or perhaps you are in mid-career, haven’t received a promotion in four years, and are starting to feel anxious about the internal competition.  You then hear that one of those you feel you are competing with threw you under the bus in a management report.

And what about the Zero-Sum Game you play with yourself? You’ve been given an assignment that is complicated and will require your best thinking. Others have their assignments. All the work will come together eventually. You work on your stuff. Your peers work on their stuff. You feel pressured to solve your own problems – you must meet your assigned deadlines and don’t have time to help others. You push away those from other functions that are asking for your input or involvement. Or you avoid pulling others in out of fear they will slow you down or block your ideas from being implemented – or even worse – they may take credit for your work. Or maybe the organizational culture creates a pressure for you to solve your own problems. So the silo is kept in tact and solid.

This zero-sum mindset says “if I lose they win” or “if they win I lose”. The mindset that the CEO is looking for is “if the organization wins, I win”. This needed mindset looks for ways to engage others, breakdown silos and look for the best solutions. It also means that instead of spending 10 hours solving a technical issue, you go to the senior experienced person who is likely to be able to solve it for you immediately. And that senior experienced person sees it as their job to help you.  You get your problem solved. The senior person is validated for their knowledge and experience. A win-win.

The fact about human behavior, is that everyone focuses on what he or she personally did to contribute to a win and minimizes the parts played by others. It’s a zero-sum game, leading to people feeling unappreciated and sapping everyone’s willingness to sacrifice for a collective goal.

  1. Break the cycle by initiating a positive one: a culture of appreciation. If you share why you appreciate someone else, he or she will likely return the sentiment. Sharing heartfelt appreciation will spur collaboration and mend tense relationships, opening up space for real work to be done.
  2. See your job differently. You aren’t in school any more. What used to be considered cheating (going to your classmates for the answers on the test) is now the right thing to do.
  3. See others’ job differently. Anyone in the organization that has the information, knowledge or insight to help you solve your problem is a candidate for you to collaborate with. Leverage others’ experience and knowledge. And always give them credit for helping you.

The more unrewarded you feel, the more difficult this is to do – but the only way to get the ball to come back to you is by getting it rolling.

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