The Playing Not to Lose Syndrome

Managers could innovate if they did not have their heads down, just trying to get through to the end of the day. Our jobs as leaders is to get people back in the game. Where they can play to win.

Last night, I was energized by a conversation I had with the general manager of the hotel I’m staying at in Hanoi. He was telling me about the many challenges he faced in growing his business and about often he took calculated risks. He’s driven by wanting to create the very best hotel experience in Vietnam. It struck me how different this conversation was from one I had two weeks ago with a very senior executive who seemed stuck. Faced with slowing growth, aggressive and new competitors, he seemed unable and/or unwilling to alter his course. He was worried about changing too much and possibly making things worse.

This senior executive is a perfect example of a person who, instead of playing to win, is merely hoping not to lose. I have witnessed this particular aspect of disengagement for the 35 years I’ve been leading and advising companies. Because of the way most organizations are run, the potential rewards people might get for taking a risk are usually greatly overshadowed by the potential consequences they would suffer for being wrong. In other words, the fear of losing trumps the desire to try to win. Most executives and employees understand this equation all too well. I have come to think of this phenomenon as the “playing not to lose” mindset—you don’t reach for the brass ring, you just make sure you don’t fall off your horse.

Obviously, no one sets out to “play not to lose”—it just seems to happen to people without their being aware. This psychological aversion to being fully engaged is insidious, like an invisible, flesh-eating virus. It thwarts innovation and progress. And even when everyone in the organization realizes that this has become the company-wide modus operandi, almost never does anyone do anything to change it.

The Playing Not to Lose Syndrome is contagious. If a leader has it, it, in turn, will shape the behaviors of those who report to him or her. While no one admits to being ruled by this “just getting by” strategy, it is revealed in the nature of their decisions and other actions and is readily apparent to all levels of management (who may have similar inclinations), as well as the rest of the employees throughout the organization.

Employees are affected by this behavior in both direct and indirect ways. Without being specifically told “not to rock the boat,” the actions, decisions, and communications from their leaders clearly communicate that they should not be bold and seek out newer, better ways to do things. They are not encouraged to call out problems, because then leaders will have to acknowledge this and make tough decisions to fix them.

The real problem with doing just enough to get by and no more is that, like a person treading water, it ultimately doesn’t work. At some point you have to swim to shore or you will drown. People believe that if they keep their heads down, nothing will change. In reality, most of the time, those who are playing not to lose eventually will get fired. In other words, they lose anyway—the thing they are trying so hard to protect gets blown up in the end. And yet, the human tendency is to hold tighter and tighter to the status quo as though it were a security blanket—not understanding that it’s actually an anti-security blanket!

To add to the problem, most leaders of large companies are 50 years of age and older and are thinking about making it safely to retirement, to ensure that their lifestyle can continue for several decades to come. This clouds their decision-making process in a way that has a negative impact on the organization.

Of course, the Playing Not to Lose Syndrome exists everywhere, not just in business. People in politics, teachers, even scientists can suffer from this syndrome—putting in just enough hours and enough effort to get by, to do a good job but not a great one. The truth is that most of us have been guilty of this mindset at some point in our lives.

If there is one thing I am completely convinced of, however, is that it is human nature to want to do a good job, to strive to excel. Employees usually have great ideas to fix problems or to create solutions for customers, but unfortunately they’re never asked. Managers could innovate if they did not have their heads down, just trying to get through to the end of the day.

Our jobs as leaders is to get people back in the game. Where they can play to win.

Steve Goldstein has held executive positions with leading global brands, such as American Express (chairman and CEO of American Express Bank), Sears (president of Sears Credit), and Citigroup, as well as several early stage enterprises. He currently works in the private equity industry as a senior advisor with consulting and advisory firm Alvarez & Marsal, and serves as chairman of US Auto Sales, a senior advisor to Milestone Partners, and an industrial advisor to EQT Partners (a global private equity firm based in Stockholm). He also has advised CEOs and private equity owners, providing counsel on performance improvement with their companies in addition to acquisitions and merger integration opportunities. He has served on numerous boards, such as: American Express Bank, Jafra Cosmetics, Union Bancaire Privée, Pay-O-Matic, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. Goldstein has been an investor, advisor, and interim CEO for more than 10 venture backed e-commerce companies. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from City University of New York City, and an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business.


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