Why Win-Win is Lose Lose (and what you want instead)

Welcome to another edition of the Leadership AdvantEdge.

And this week I’m challenging the idea that a win-win solution is an ideal to strive for.

if everybody wins, there is no new value created. It is merely exchanged.

if everybody wins, there is no new value created. It is merely exchanged.

Whether you are negotiating a business deal, starting a new venture, having a debate with your kids or your partner. We’ve been fed a lie for years. And that lie is that we should always aim to get a win-win solution.

I win and you win. Should be good right? The trouble is that life, and the other humans you are dealing with are not truly interested in a win-win solution at all. Otherwise, capitalism dies. Perhaps not such a bad thing, but if everybody wins, and the idea is that this is fair, then no-one sees growth in value. And if that happens…. pray tell, why would you do it?

The reality is that win-win is a disguised way of keeping track. It is to make sure that everyone comes out even. That no-one gets an advantage.

Most people realise this and usually seek to gain the upper hand in some aspect.


And you may cry that this is not the case. That most people are fair-minded, caring and trustworthy. So consider a situation where you are arrested for a crime together with someone else. You are placed in a cell, alone and interrogated about your crime.

  • Your interrogator tells you that if you both confess to the crime or both stay silent, that you will both get 3 years detention. But if you tattle on the other person, they will get 5 years and you will walk free. If you both betray the other, you both get five years.
  • On the other hand, if they betray you, you will get 5 years, and they will walk.
  • You have no means of communicating with the other person.
Given the chance to walk away scott free, would you betray someone else?

Given the chance to walk away scott free, would you betray someone else?

It is likely that your first response to this is that you are innocent and thus should be exonerated anyway. And indeed, your interrogators appear to have insufficient evidence without your confession or testifying that the other person committed the crime.

This is a game is known as the prisoner’s dilemma, originally framed in 1950 by Melvin Dresher and Merril Flood. I have played a variation of this across the world in vastly different cultures, organisations, crossing genders, races, nationalities. And every single time someone betrays the other.

Even when playing several rounds with an opportunity to communicate with the other party. Even when, during that communication, both parties agreed to stay firm and both confess, or both stay silent. One (and oftentimes both) betray the other.

Of course, they justify it and assure the other party that they didn’t mean it.

They justify their actions to me. But when push comes to shove, the betrayer will finally admit that they were concerned that the other party would betray them.

In other words, they believed that the other party would take advantage to win, whilst they lost.

This is a common problem about trust and the cycle of choosing to trust someone without certainty, or not. I recorded a podcast on that earlier.

Let me remind you that this result has been true every single time of the several hundred times I have played this game in workshops and group sessions.

Essentially, the prisoner’s dilemma is a game about trust. When I adjust the rules such that both staying silent means that each gets just one year – that is, there is a lesser lose-lose option, then 65% of the time, people will cooperate and choose that less bad losing option, rather than the win-lose.

When you play this game over several iterations, the opportunity to “get your own back” presents itself, and 9 out of ten individuals and groups will take that opportunity and gain that sweet revenge.

Participants savour the opportunity to get their own back on a betrayal in a previous round.

Participants savour the opportunity to get their own back on a betrayal in a previous round.

What I do find interesting is that afterwards, those who “won” and caused others to “lose” are happier, laugh more and their “losers” are resentful. Even though it is “just a game”.

The problem with such betrayal is the erosion of trust thereafter. Trust is like having a bankroll of cash. Everytime I gain your trust, it’s as if you give me some more money to put into my bankroll. But when I do something that loses your trust in me, then you are taking from that bankroll. You might even take the whole bankroll from me.

Gaining your trust again after that will be a slow and time-consuming process. Where you eke out a small addition to my bankroll each time I prove myself to you.

We want others to treat us fairly and never betray us, whilst constantly being on guard that maybe they can’t be trusted quite so much. And why are we guarded? Because experience with other human beings will, inevitably and sadly, have demonstrated that not all of us can be fully trusted.

Indeed the Reticular Activating System in your brain seeks difference in the environment and has a tendency to interpret any difference as a threat. Any uncertainty we have is interpreted as a threat. Stoking the fires of cortisol and stress, making us defensive and less likely to trust. Maybe even betray the other party before they can harm us.

When I win and you lose, I take the power. It’s all about me. My success, my gains, my growth.

Many leaders, especially those controlling types I discussed in the last episode, are actually focused on win-lose. They know that the only way to hold onto power and control is that they win, and you lose.

Many more pretend to be win-win advocates, because, well we’re supposed to be better than that aren’t we? We each get fifty-fifty and everyone’s happy, right?

The real winners though have turned the tables and done something radical. They’ve realised that fifty-fifty is a losing proposition. They are trusted, even loved, and they eventually take all the business.

These mavericks are 100% focussed on the other guy winning. They look out for the other guy. They make certain that he wins.

The more you focus on the other person’s win, the more influence you have with them.

The other person is your client. In the archaic sense of the word when a client is someone under the protection of a patron (that’s you by the way). That is they are a dependent. And your job is to look after them and their interests.

You might be having some concerns about this so let me ask you: How do you feel when someone truly looks after you and your interests. When they put you first.

Let’s say that you board an aeroplane. You are welcomed with a genuine smile and greeted by your name. Perhaps welcomed back. You are seated in a comfortable leather seat and asked about your day or your trip. They serve you your favourite beverage and make sure that you have everything that you need.

Awesome, that sounds like first class right? But you paid economy.

Would you use that airline again?

Of course, you would.

And the next time, it’s the same treatment. All about you, your needs, your wants, your comfort.

The staff are friendly, highly professional yet also entertaining and always smiling.

Your flight takes off and arrives on time 84% of the time and if there is any substantial delay, you are kept informed with open and honest communication that is clear and useful.

Fantasy right? Not so. That’s Southwest Airlines. Virgin comes close. And United has a little way to go.

And what’s really interesting at Southwest is that they do not put the customer first! No, staff first. Because it is their staff who will look after their clients. Because happier employees = happier customers.

You’ll notice that companies who are making huge profits have a terrific reputation as employers and suppliers are putting clients first and foremost. It’s a lose-win idea.

It’s a lose-win idea.

Learn more about the Power continuum - Contact US today

The Power Continuum shows the organisational and leaders' maturity with the most common symptoms of each shown on this diagram

Because making sure that the other party, your client, wins is going to cost you.

You have shifted the power from me, through we to thee (you).

Win-lose just causes your customers to resent you.

Win-win and the 50-50 solution doesn’t really exist and we fool ourselves that it ever can in this fallen world.

Lose-win is crazy madness where clients come under your protection and patronage.

As their trust in you continues to build and is never lost, they will turn to you to supply their needs more and more.

It’s why Amazon’s customer centricity pillar has resulted in a 20 year streak of double digit growth. It is why Southwest Airlines has been profitable for 45 consecutive years. It’s why TD Bank (Toronto Dominion Bank) stays open 7 days a week up to 8pm to serve its customers and is growing rapidly.

It’s ultimately about where you put your power. When you make it all about me, you are interested in winning and it’s the “power of me”. Your leadership approach is controlling and you treat customers with contempt.

When you strive for win-win, it is the “power of we”. And your relationship with your customers is based on keeping trust. They trust you and you trust them. When it works, it can be beautiful. But then you find someone who wants just a little more, a bigger slice of the pie, and it all falls apart.

When you shift power to your client, it’s the “power of thee”. You take a true client mindset and make it all about them winning. Their needs, their convenience, their wants and desires. Your job is to supply and protect them from those nasty “power of me and we” folk, who haven’t really got their interests at heart.

So how do you apply this in your organisation?

Let’s start with who is your client?

And that’s everyone. Your customer is your client. Your colleagues are your clients, your boss is your client.

In other words, you focus on their needs and not yours.

But then I’ll be giving everything away? I’ll be doing it for free. (Because what clients want is everything for nothing. – that is you believe that they have a win-lose “power of me” mindset).

Not at all.

It is in your client’s interests to pay you well, so that you are not distracted by petty details like paying your bills. It is in their interests that you spend more time focused on them rather than too many others, so they need to pay you more and treat you well.

It is not in their interests to treat you like a slave, for then you will not be in a position to truly serve them as well as you could. Just ask Bharat Masrani, Herb Kelleher or Jeff Bezos.

Then it is truly about the power of thee.

To learn more about the Power Continuum and to take a quick assessment to establish where your organisation is currently, contact me today.

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I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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