Do You Play to Win or Not to Lose?

Accountability Contribution Thought leadership

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Key Point: I used to think that we all should always focus more on trying to win versus trying not to lose. In sports, I have seen teams that go into a defensive shell and end up blowing a lead to their opponents because they lose momentum. They get ahead but lose in the end by not playing to win. But I also have seen the opposite; where teams are ahead in the game, get reckless and end up blowing a lead because they are too aggressive. They lose because they didn’t get effectively preventative or defensive.

People are a reflection of these two orientations. Heidi Grant Halvorson and E. Tory Higgins, in a recent HBR article, point out that the latest psychology illustrates that we have a natural tendency to either be more promotion focused or prevention focused. This very personal motivation orientation affects how we approach life’s challenges and demands. Here is what the author’s have to say about describing both focus areas:

“Promotion-focused people see their goals as creating a path to gain or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them. They are eager and they play to win. You’ll recognize promotion-focused people as those who are comfortable taking chances, who like to work quickly, who dream big and think creatively. Unfortunately, all that chance taking, speedy working, and positive thinking makes these individuals more prone to error, less likely to think things through, and usually unprepared with a plan B if things go wrong. That’s a price they are willing to pay, because for the promotion-focused, the worst thing is a chance not taken, a reward unearned, a failure to advance.

Prevention-focused people, in contrast, see their goals as responsibilities, and they concentrate on staying safe. They worry about what might go wrong if they don’t work hard enough or aren’t careful enough. They are vigilant and play to not lose, to hang on to what they have, to maintain the status quo. They are often more risk-averse, but their work is also more thorough, accurate, and carefully considered. To succeed, they work slowly and meticulously. They aren’t usually the most creative thinkers, but they may have excellent analytical and problem-solving skills.

The promotion-focused are engaged by inspirational role models, the prevention-focused by cautionary tales. What I have learned is that we need to consciously embrace a balance of both motivation focuses. While the promotion-minded generate lots of ideas, good and bad, it often takes someone prevention-minded to tell the difference between the two. To win in a sustainable way needs BOTH.”

Character Moves:

  1. Recognize which motivation focus you are. (You may already know this but you can take a focus check by self-assessing your orientation here). Are you more promotion or prevention based?
  2. Balance yourself by connecting with people who have the opposite focus to you. I believe both people and teams need the dynamic tension of both. Surround yourself with some of the opposite and your decision-making will be better for it.
  3. Learn how to connect both motivational orientations within yourself in as balanced way as possible. We have to be motivationally ambidextrous these days. This may be a paradox but we can do it. We have to learn how to PROMOTE and PREVENT at the same time: Playing to win AND not to lose.
  4. The real trick is knowing which way to sway. Do you lean more forward and play aggressive offense or do you play prevent defense? The answer is to be aware of the benefit of both approaches and decide based on the situation you’re in. It is case by case NOT just one way or the other.

Promoting AND Preventing in The Triangle,

Lorne