Last week a reader sent me an e-mail pointing out a mistake in my latest column. Blogs and posts, he explained, are not the same. A blog refers to the whole thing; a post is an entry on a blog.
I e-mailed back: OK, you win.
A couple of seconds later he had e-mailed again, this time pointing out a mistake in my reply. It was not a zero-sum game, he said. It was win-win: he won by being right and I won by learning never to confuse blogs and posts again.
I hope he was joking, but it was hard to be sure as people talk such nonsense about winning. The very phrase win-win is enough to set one』s teeth on edge. It is not just goody-goody, it is logically suspect: the idea of winners is predicated on the idea of losers. If everyone wins, then it isn』t a competition, it』s a prayer meeting.
In business, resources are scarce, and the aim is to get more of them than your rivals. Sometimes you win; sometimes you don』t. Sometimes lots of people win; though as business is so hard, more often lots of people lose. In the Terminal 5 fiasco, almost everyone lost: passengers, shareholders, staff and, in particular, the two BA management stooges who were fired last week. The only people who conceivably won were those who, like me, never fly anywhere and could feel smugly distant about the whole thing.
I』ve just consulted Wikipedia, which gives as an example of a win-win game one in which many people carry a huge 「earth ball」 several metres wide over their heads while negotiating an obstacle course. It explains that in this game there are no losers, that no one is excluded and that it is all down to teamwork. What it doesn』t explain, though, is why on earth a group of people would want to carry a big ball over an obstacle course in the first place.
I first came across win-win as a managerial concept 20 years ago in Steven Covey』s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Habit #4 was 「Think win-win」, which seemed pretty dodgy to me at the time, but since then 「win」 inflation has taken hold and Covey』s two-way win looks almost reasonable.
The latest Harvard Business Review is urging its readers to adopt a new leadership strategy of win-win-win-win. It says that a 「total leader」 aims to score simultaneous wins in four areas of his life: work, home, community and self (defined as a ragbag made up of mind, body and spirit).
The article gives the example of an unfit manager who runs a marathon. This gives him bulging leg muscles and is therefore a win for 「self」. It is a win for his work, too, as he trains with his boss – so he can presumably crawl while he runs. Community benefits from the money he is raising, and his pregnant partner is happy because she fondly believes his fitness will make him a better parent. Hey presto, win-win-win-win.
Well maybe; I would be inclined to tell the story differently. The marathon could screw up his knees for life, it could make him a shocking bore to his friends, a crawler to his colleagues and make his wife resentful at his prolonged absences.
The win-win-win-win strategy isn』t simply babyish slush, it is downright delusional. The four spheres of our life are often in conflict, because time itself is a scarce resource. Everything I am doing means that I』m not doing something else. At the moment I am at my computer typing. I am doing it because it is my job. I could be having lunch with a friend whose life has gone wrong. I could be gardening. I could be with my children. I could be at the hairdressers having my roots done. But I』m not. I』m working.
The article suggests that the leader should consult 「stakeholders」 (children, friends, colleagues, employers) to find out what they want, and then come up with the win-win-win-win strategy. But I already know what my stakeholders want from me. They want attention, meals, conversation, nicely turned columns, attendance at board meetings, and so on. Their needs are not complementary.
The secret to staying sane-ish and to keeping some of one』s stakeholders happy some of the time, is to be lots of different people, and to switch between them as the occasion demands. When I am writing columns, my work side is winning, and my family and friend side is losing. To know this is important. Losers make one feel guilty and guilt is a useful emotion in redressing the balance.
Instead of pretending that everything is a win, the good leader needs to get better about winning and losing. The reality TV show The Apprentice is a more helpful guide here than the HBR. It is a reminder that winning feels nice and losing feels horrid. Good winners win in a way that isn』t so gleeful that no one wants to play with them again. And good losers don』t burst into tears and stamp off in a huff.
In last week』s episode, when Simon, the ex-army man, was ignominiously fired, he thanked Sir Alan for giving him the 「wonderful opportunity」 of being humiliated on national TV. And then in the cab that took him away from the boardoom he said: 「At the end of the day, I failed. I』m going to go home and pick myself up. Next week I』ll be putting up satellite dishes again.」
One might quibble with the word choice, but otherwise this was classy losing: realistic, grown up and just slightly grim.