Not Zero Sum

Winning and losing, and who does how much of which, is in the news a lot. I’m pretty fond of winning, myself – through college I set my alarm for 4:50am every week day to get to crew practice on time, and to this day nothing makes my heart race like the count-down sequence before rowing shells surge off the starting line. Of course winning, almost by definition, means someone else is losing. This is a zero-sum game, and there can be a deep satisfaction to it, to being victorious and triumphant and better-than.

And yet I don’t believe rowing races, or chess matches, or winning and losing in general, are the right metaphors to make sense of the world. Winning and losing can be a great game, a way we to act out conflict and competition without damaging relationships. But I’m doubtful whether win/lose is a useful way to understand our relationships to our world, our communities, or our workplaces. I am reading a book called The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, by Alison Gopnik, that argues that humans are a deeply cooperative species, and that the need for cooperation is driven by our unusually long, vulnerable period of childhood – we need others to help us get those fragile creatures through childhood alive. Deeply, biologically, it takes a village, she argues. Cooperative child rearing and cooperative, altruistic behavior allows for that long period of vulnerability and growth, and we could not be human without it.

As an aside, the reason she says we need this long childhood is to grow brains that are adaptable and creative, because as a species we don’t stick around the place we were born and do exactly what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did to survive. Instead, we are a roaming, restless species where the new generation encounters challenges un-imagined by the generation before, and so simply passing on what has always worked for us is unlikely to equip our progeny adequately. I appreciate that point of view as the mother of a child whose world will be vastly different from the one I was born into. I’m looking at you, Internet.

Work, of course, can be seen as either a playing field for the zero-sum game or the village where we collaborate with each other. Which view we chose determines how we interact with our colleagues, and ultimately determines our workplace culture. Whether you agree with Gopnik that cooperation and solidarity are deeply human motivators, or with the currently ascendant Ayn Randian view that self-interest trumps all, we can take a pragmatic look at what either cooperation or competition does to a workplace and decide which we want.

On a practical level, when the workplace is an areana for competition you can expect that:

  • Knowledge becomes currency, and power. You don’t share information, you hoard it, so that you always have more than other people.
  • People are ranked one above the other: “Sue is okay, but Pete is better,” rather than “Sue is a really good writer, and Pete is a really flexible thinker. I’ll get them to collaborate on that proposal.”
  • Approval becomes a zero-sum commodity to be fought for; if my boss thinks well of my colleague, there is less approval to go around for me, because if this is a zero sum game, someone must lose if my colleague wins. And so, of course, I am going to sabotage her work (oh so subtly) to get ahead. I did warn you I like to win, didn’t I?

Seeing work as an area for collaboration, on the other hand, leads to different outcomes, where what is best for you can be best for me, and where there is enough approval and knowledge and good work to go around. I’ll be the first to admit that workplace policies and practices can undermine those good vibes – there often isn’t enough approval communicated in any direction, and sometimes resources are unfairly allocated, and what is good for me is bad for you – but that shouldn’t be an excuse for us to give up and wallow in our baser nature. We can aim for better.

Regardless of what I want for my workplace, I’m not giving up on competitive sports. I believe there is a place for ferocious competition. Yet when I think back on my years of rowing competitively, and the races won and lost, in my mind’s eye I never do see the people I won or lost to. Instead I see the image of my coach, a bear of a man, biking up the course alongside us, waving his arms and hollering in delight as we crossed the finish line. I feel the hands of the woman in the seat behind me, patting my back in shared sadness after a loss. I didn’t get out of bed at 4:50 in order to win, I realize – I got up at 4:50 in order to do something hard in a community I loved.

I still do, only I get up a wee bit later these days, and I get to pull alongside of all of you.

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