Collaboration has undoubtedly delivered more human success than anything else. None of us have all the skills, or all the knowledge. People who work in teams get something that is usually more than the sum of its parts. And yet, the idea of competition, or winners and losers is so much a part of our culture. The whole way in which capitalism works pretty much depends on exploitation, (I shall resist the urge to get all Marxist about this one). Business is all about win and lose, and competition drives the market place. We are told that competition is healthy and delivers the best outcomes to consumers. Frankly I’m sceptical about that one, not least because the definition of ‘best’ tends to be ‘cheapest and most widely available’.
The moment you set up sides, and decide that there’s an us, and a them, then its not long before we have to win and they have to lose. Once we’re looking at a win-lose setup, then ideas about compromise or consensus are right off the table. We aren’t looking to agree, we want to win, score more points, get more things, come out on top. Our culture tells us that when we win in this way, we have achieved something. We are superior to the losers. Cleverer. We deserve our success and can take pride in it. The losers deserve to have lost and deserve the humiliation and practical consequences of failure.
Our judicial systems are adversarial, and that sets up not just assumptions about the kind of outcome that’s desirable, but a structure in which the win/lose arrangement is pretty much the only thing you can get. When it comes to situations of human error and tragedy, this means that people fight to win, which means fighting not to be blamed, and therefore not taking responsibility, and therefore vital lessons can be easily not learned. As with what so often happens when medicine or infrastructure goes wrong and kills people. This is not my definition of a good win at all.
When you get into a conflict situation and you get that conventional ‘win’ and watch the other person lose, you have the option to be smug and self righteous. You have all the cultural support imaginable to kick the person who is now down. Or perhaps you get the hollow feeling that you were playing the wrong game all along and that what you have is really another form of lose.
In a win/lose scenario, the more that’s at stake, the more important it becomes to seem right. Being right is a secondary consideration. Winning comes first. In war, the first casualty is often said to be truth. It’s just as probable in other forms of human conflict. Where we want to win, and where winning is more important than how we get there, honour doesn’t get much of a look in. Truth is likely to be further hidden beneath piles of obfuscation and perhaps even self delusion. We want to believe in ourselves as righteous winners, after all. That’s what it’s all about, allegedly. Except that way lies a mire of mistakes and emotional self harming, a total lack of scope to make good changes, and a whole range of methods to entrench and escalate hostility. Again, I have to say this is not my definition of what ’win’ ought to look like.
What I think is this. When people draw lines and take sides, rally round flags and declare enmity, there is only one available outcome. To some degree, everybody is going to lose. Often not just the people involved, either. We lose in our humanity and understanding, in our capacity for making something better. I want a win that takes everyone forward in a good way. Or failing that, as many people as possible. I want wins that are about truth, compassion and best outcomes for everyone.