Win or Lose

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona



Win, lose situations pervade our culture. In the law courts we use the adversary system. Political parties strive to win elections and to win points in legislatures. Debates are common at schools, universities and in the media. The put-down is generally regarded as wit. Competing with and defeating an opponent is the most widely publicized aspect of a good deal of our sports and recreation.

The language of business, politics, and even education is dotted with win/lose terms. One "wins" a promotion, "beats" the competition, buys a lubricant to obtain "the racer’s edge" for his auto. Students strive to "top the class" or "outsmart" the teacher. Although we do recognize cooperative effort and collaboration, it seems that we tend to emphasize "healthy’‘competition.

In an environment that seems to stress winning, it is no wonder that competitive behavior persists where it is not appropriate. Imagine a typical committee meeting to decide on a suitable program for a club. Members interrupt each other to introduce their own ideas. Proposals are made which other members do not even acknowledge. Partnerships and even power blocs are formed to support one program against proponents of another. When members of such a committee are enabled to analyze the operation of the group they commonly agree that they were not listening to each other because they were thinking of ways to state a case or to counter the proposal of someone else. They were interrupting to get a point out before the speaker clinched the sale of his idea. In these ways they were acting as competing individuals rather than a collaborating group. They had started out to reach the best decision regarding program, but had slipped into a win/lose contest. Very often the original purpose is completely overshadowed by the struggle to win. This is a common failing of committees.

Group meetings are not the only sphere in which win/lose can arise. Visualize a consultant discussing a client’s problem. For any of a number of reasons, the client may perceive his helpful suggestions not as the consultant intends but as criticism of the client’s methods, or whatever. As a result the client might also feel that he was in competition with the consultant. The contest would revolve around whose methods were more effective or who could do the job better. Instead of listening to the recommendations, the client would be trying to shoot them down. For his part, the consultant would be concentrating on defending his expertise. When a consultant and client are locked in a win/lose match, the chances are very small that the consultant’s advice will be used.

Win/lose contests can also develop in an organization. Individuals may strive for dominant position. Battles can rage discreetly, and otherwise, between departments. For example, a planning department might develop a new assembly procedure. When it is introduced to the assembly department, the workers might resent it and lock horns with planners. It is easy to interpret the situation in win/lose terms. The planners are showing that they know more and can design a procedure better than the men on the job. If the new procedure works well, the planners "win." On the other hand, if the innovation does not improve production, the planners "lose," and, in a sense, the assemblers "win" because their normal operation proved superior. Seen in this light, it should be expected that the workers will not be committed to giving the innovation a fair trial. In extreme cases, they may even sabotage it "to show those theoretical snobs in Planning." In fact all efforts to plan for others are plagued by win/lose traps. In some companies and institutions internal win/lose rivalries absorb more effort than the main production or service.


Although there are obviously some instances where win/lose is a positive factor, it is generally destructive. Win/lose is too often poison to interpersonal relations and organizational effectiveness. Suppose a husband loses an argument with his wife so that they go dancing instead of to a horse race. He can retaliate by being sullen or obnoxious. He has turned a win/lose situation into an ordeal where both partners are miserable. Often win/ lose "victories" become losses for both parties. This has been termed a "lose/ lose" result.

Some of the negative results of win/lose have been shown in the examples already given. Here is a list of fourteen problems which may arise from win/lose confrontations. They are not in any particular order. nor are they comprehensive.

Win/Lose may:

1. divert time and energy from the main issues

2. delay decisions

3. create deadlocks

4. drive unaggressive committee members to the sidelines

5. interfere with listening

6. obstruct exploration of more alternatives

7. decrease or destroy sensitivity

8. cause members to drop out or resign from committees

9. arouse anger that disrupts a meeting

10. interfere with empathy

11. leave losers resentful

12. incline underdogs to sabotage

13. provoke personal abuse

14. cause defensiveness.


Since win/lose events will undoubtedly be experienced by us often in the course of time, it is important to know how to cope with them. Since the predominant trend of win/lose contests is toward lose/lose outcomes, it becomes a matter of redirecting them toward "win/win" results. In a "win/win" result everyone comes out on top.

It is extremely difficult for one person alone to re-orient a win/lose. You are likely to be treated as a third party in the scrap, or you may have both adversaries turn on you. Although it would be ideal to have all parties committed to avoid win/lose, the efforts of a significant segment of a group can usually be effective. In a one-to-one conflict, one of the parties can often turn off a contest. It takes two to fight. The more persons in a win/lose situation who recognize the dangers in such a struggle and want to adjust the situation, the more likely they will succeed. Supposing such a sub-group exists in a committee what can they do to help?

Some means of adjustment:

1. Have clear goals, understood and agreed upon. Use the goals to test whether issues are relevant or not.

2. Be on the lookout for win/lose. It can develop subtly. If you feel under attack, or feel yourself lining up support, you are likely in a win/lose.

3. Listen empathetically to others. Stop yourself from working on counter-arguments while another person is speaking. Take the risk of being persuaded. Try the other person’s reasoning on for size.

4. Avoid absolute statements that leave no room for modification. "I think this is the way . . ." is better than "This is THE ONLY way . . ."

5. If you are planning for others, provide some means for their involvement. The doers should feel that they can have influence on decisions that affect them.

6. Try to make decisions by consensus rather than by victory of the majority.

7. Test to see that trade-offs and compromises are truly accepted by all.

8. Draw a continuum line and have members place themselves on it regarding the issue. It often occurs that the different "sides" are not far apart.

9. Be alert to selling or winning strategies in others, and avoid using them yourself. "Any intelligent person can see the advantages . . ." would be a danger signal.

Again this list is not exhaustive. but may provide a beginning toward more productive relationships. The key idea in adjusting win/lose is to strive for what is best for all rather than trying to get your way.


1. The following structured experiences taken from A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training, Volumes 1, 11, and 111, Pfeiffer and Jones, and the 1972 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, Pfeiffer and Jones, would be useful in examining win/lose, collaboration. and consensus - seeking in a group.

Broken Squares, Volume I
Win as Much as You Can, Volume 11
Auction, Volume 11
The Hollow Square Experiment, Volume 11
Intergroup Competition Exercise, Volume 11
Towers an Intergroup Competition Exercise, Volume 111
Polarization, Volume 111
Organizational Mirroring, Volume 111
Energy International, 1972 Annual
Intergroup Model-Building The Lego Man, 1972 Annual

2. The use of an observation panel of participants who collect win/lose examples from the operation of the consensus committee is highly recommended.

3. Observation of the film, Twelve Angry Men, can be used with attention to win/lose and the means of avoiding it.


Gerry E. Wiley

The 1973 Annual Handbook For Group Facilitators



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