Must Business Be Dominated by "I Win. You Lose"?

Last Updated Sep 16, 2010 3:08 PM EDT

The rules of business decision making more often than not are based on the principle of "I win. You lose." Companies, and their employees, proceed invincibly down the path of unilateral rightness. Compromise is out of the question. Collaboration is tantamount to defeat. I win. You lose. Damn the consequences.
We see this over and over again in companies of all sizes and complexions. We see this today in the social media wars between Google and Facebook. People fight senselessly to gain personal advantage in situations where two winners would be better than one. Ego and ambition, coupled with personality trained in the school of one-upmanship, drive rational, collaborative, thinking straight out of the race.

We live in a culture of competition in which the first is first and the second is last. But, at the same time, the world we live in today demands collaboration and shared solutions, be it our private world, our corporate world or the geo-political world. What we do affects someone else, someplace else. So why the need to score points and win every time?

As social media platforms continue to drive community, communication, collaboration and a level playing field, we have to ask a basic question: Is it human nature to share or compete, work together or alone, fight or make peace? Darwinian theories of natural selection indicate that we evolved with a single purpose, to mate and propagate the species. For thousands of years this has meant "survival of the fittest." Has our species evolved now to the point where fitness means something different than winning?
In organizations across the globe, it is rarely possible for two people to solve problems without one or the other embracing the principle of "I win. You lose." When companies behave in the same way, what gets sacrificed is more profit, more growth, more shared success, more peace of mind. Anxiety is the most common emotion among American business people. If people could only adopt "I win. You win" as their personal mantra, therapy would collapse as a profession.
In the advertising industry, "I win. You lose" is the modus operandi. Within agencies, within client organizations, between agencies and clients, "I win. You lose" drives nearly every decision. As a consequence, the best solutions are frequently overlooked-or worse, subverted in favor of personal gain. In a business in which every victory is short-lived and success grows as stale as yesterday's donut, one would think that a new way of collaborative working would be a benefit too obvious to ignore.
I worked with a client who fired his very competent number two on the basis of "You made friends with my enemies." Everything in this man's life was overwhelmingly dominated by the "I win. You lose" principle.
Sometimes this worked to his and his company's advantage. Fighting for the right thing, fighting entrenched prejudice and stupidity, fighting narrow-minded territorialism, pays off with rewards that benefit everyone in the long run. But this particular man fought the battles as in a holy war, without compromise, without prisoners. In the end, all he achieved was a brief, fragile victory. He ended up with no support, no lasting foundations, and no friends. It nearly killed him. The advertising he fought for (and it was very good) is gone. The equity it built is gone. The investment is gone. And he is gone. So, who won?

  • Niland Mortimer

    Niland Mortimer is the chief marketing officer of Socialarc, Inc., a Bay Area social-media marketing firm. He's had a 25-year career in global marketing and advertising, with broad international experience in global brand management, web and online user experience, social media, global strategy development and implementation, interactive and direct marketing, customer relationship management, and advertising-agency management and business development. He teaches MBA-level marketing at the University of San Francisco and in fall 2010 will begin teaching open branding at Stanford University.