What does winning really mean?

As I continue my research into society’s obsession with winning, whether in sport, business or education, I see repeatedly that there is often little clarity about what winning actually means. 

It is frequently taken for granted and assumed that ‘everyone wants to win’.  That ‘winning is everything’ (- a phrase usually attributed to legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi, but actually first coined by UCLA Football Coach Henry Sanders –) and that ‘the winner takes all’ (- a phrase that originates from the military practice of a victorious army taking whatever they wanted as the ‘spoils of war’, more recently immortalised by Abba!).  I think those are rather vague, abstract phrases to be applied to complex modern-day businesses or organisations.  Yet those phrases do echo around many of our workplaces, and the reality of what they mean stays accordingly vague. Why is this?

Of course, in sport it seems so temptingly obvious and simple – it’s about crossing the line first, being on the top step of the podium, holding that trophy.  Yet those are all split-second moments.  Those need to be translated into meaning beyond that split-second if they are to be long-lasting positive experiences.  When they aren’t translated, that allows a world to exist where it’s possible for an Olympic gold medallist to walk back into the village feeling ‘empty’ and ‘hollow’, or where ‘winning sportstars’ can actually be suffering depression and worse. 

The best sports coaches are those who are not afraid to ask their athletes what they want to do after sport, and strong enough to ask and listen to the deeper motivations that have driven their athletes to be in this unnatural high performance environment striving to be the best in the world.  That’s the beginning of building a wider perspective and deeper meaning about the extreme and often short-lived experience of elite sport.

At work, the language of winning can be ubiquitous.  I groan whenever I am asked, ‘Can you help us to win?’  A plethora of questions tumble out of my mouth at that point: ‘What are you trying to win? Why is that important? What does that mean for your employees? What’s in it for them? What’s the difference that you’re trying to make? What impact do you want to have on the world around you?’

Too many businesses work on the assumption that their staff must want to ‘win promotion’.  How can moving up the organisation and ‘climbing the greasy pole’ as fast as possible be right for most employees?  After all, only a handful can ever achieve this.  That then automatically means a huge number will be left feeling they have failed by this measure, devaluing their efforts and contribution to the organisation.  Yet that organisation cannot exist and certainly cannot thrive without the full contribution of all its staff. 

Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan’s research showed how the common phenomenon of dismissing the ‘B Players’ harms organisational performance: “We all downplay average performers because they lack the lustre and ambition of stars.  But look again.  These best supporting actors may just take the lead in saving your organization…  A players, it is true, can make enormous contributions to corporate performance.  Yet in our collective 20 years of consulting, research, and teaching, we have found that companies’ long-term performance – even survival –depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players.  These capable, steady performers are the best supporting actors of the business world… Unfortunately, organizations rarely learn to value their B players in ways that are gratifying for either the company or these employees.  As a result, companies see their profits sinking without really understanding why.” (“Let’s Hear it for the B Players”, HBR, 2003)

Many organisations confidently define their raison d’etre to be ‘no 1 in the marketplace.’  But is that helpful to performance?  It can again seem enticingly clear and tangible.  Yet ‘being no 1’ only defines its position in relation to its competitors.  If this is where the definition of success ends, then there is no clear, positive picture of what ‘being No 1’ looks like, no sense of what is being created or accomplished – beyond miserable, beaten competitors.  Wouldn’t it be better to define success in terms of the company’s own vision of what it wants to achieve and contribute?  Isn’t success about changing the world for the better in some way, whether through providing a better world-class service to its customers, creating a new and better product or having an impact that improves the environment and society around it? 

In 2016, Harvard Business Review in partnership with Ernst & Young published the results of a survey examining “The Business Case for Purpose.”  (The survey defines purpose as “an inspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”)  The survey demonstrated that companies who clearly articulate their purpose enjoy higher growth rates and higher levels of success in transformation and innovation initiatives. It also showed that only a minority of companies defined and utilised a clear purpose, and diagnosed the cause as a combination of short-term pressures from investors, poor leadership and misaligned performance metrics.

It’s not brave, it’s lazy to use winning as the definition of success, backed up by some universal, indisputable truth, and a macho language that can make it hard to question.  If no one knows what winning really represents, then we cut off the potential for others to engage – this should be food for thought for all those organisations that report persistently low engagement levels. 

Purpose starts a conversation about success that goes beyond winning. It’s about a longer-term timeframe, never just a split-second. It’s about a wider perspective, not a narrow view. And it’s about people’s whole lives, as individuals and communities, not measured in short-term results, but longer-term experiences.

If we all think that life is about winning, then our eyes are on some far-off, unlikely, and potentially meaningless prize that is probably unreachable for many of us anyway. That’s no way to reach our potential or to enjoy our lives to the maximum. Let’s stop trying to win and think about what we really want to achieve. Is winning everything? Or just a massive, tired cliché that distracts us from defining something with much more personal meaning and collective relevance?

What does winning really mean for you? 

Do send me your thoughts and experiences about winning and the role it plays in your life, I am currently researching and writing about this topic and interested in as wide a range of perspectives as possible. Thank you!

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