Winning, Losing, and Working Together

Some say competition, even more than love, makes the world go round.

Business leaders frequently trumpet the virtues of competition and seek the secrets of competitiveness. Competition drives reality TV, where winners may be treated not just like survivors but like idols. (By definition, of course, an idol is a false god.) A popular film recently featured a competition between Batman and Superman – two superheroes who have historically been committed to the welfare of the human community, suddenly turned into self-serving rivals.

Media coverage of politics has long been mired in the muddy metaphorical horse race, and as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised that if he wins, we would all win and win and win until we all get tired of winning.

To be sure, fair competition can drive personal improvement and even social progress. Unfortunately, however, in the absence of teamwork and collaboration, the compulsion to win comes with several serious problems, including the temptation to cheat if the prize is a life-altering jackpot (taking performance-enhancing drugs, lying to customers or voters) and the nagging fact that every competition always results in at least one loser for every winner. The White House can only host one winner per year from every Super Bowl, World Series, or March Madness, leaving many losers, paradeless, in their wakes.

Philosophical game theorists call this situation “zero sum.” If you add up all the winners in all the games in all the sports and then subtract the number of losers, the sum is exactly zero.

It’s easy to forget that individual athletes, usually starting as little kids, initially compete in order to win a role on a team. Once on the team, all the teammates must collaborate with each other to win in competitions against other teams. In schools and colleges, the real point of athletic competition is for everyone involved to learn how to win and lose with roughly equal grace. After all, graduates of schools and colleges must go on to work with graduates of other schools and colleges on behalf of the larger culture, where win-win outcomes beat win-lose outcomes every which way.

Every semester in my “Introduction to Leadership Studies” class, I orchestrated a thumb-wrestling contest, ostensibly just for fun. When I announced a $2 prize for the winner, the class perked up.

After we clarified the process, the class broke into a bunch of two-person groups, clasped hands, and wrestled thumbs for exactly one minute. Afterward, I asked if anyone scored more than five wins. Not many ever did. Even fewer scored more than ten, and only two or three scored 20.

But when I asked those last few pairs how many wins they actually scored, the class was always surprised that they scored more than 100.

The results were dramatic but the winning strategy was simple: before the game began, two or three pairs decided to become partners rather than rivals. One of the partners would remain totally passive while the other clamped his or her thumb down over and over as quickly as possible. The $2 prize made it easy to calculate that collaboration could win $1 for each partner in just one minute.

Typically, only ten percent of my students spontaneously followed the collaborative strategy, apparently because we are surrounded by so many messages touting the magic of competition.

In business, politics, and the rest of the so-called real world, individuals should be learning to compete with each other effectively so they can ultimately collaborate with each other effectively. After the competition for grades, jobs, and elections, business leaders, public servants, and private citizens should be valued for their performance as collaborative problem-solvers for the greater good, not simply for winning extravagant jackpots at the expense of everyone else.

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