When Winning Becomes a Problem

The Prague Post, November 2004

November 25, 2004

Petr is a successful businessman who prided himself on being a good manager who practiced an open-door policy. He had always encouraged his staff to express their opinions openly and share their ideas with him.

Recently, however, he’d become aware that his employees had stopped sharing their ideas with him and instead were talking them over with his personal assistant, Martina. After trying to speak with Martina about this new communication problem, he called me and asked: “What’s wrong with them? I always promoted an atmosphere of open communication and now they don’t connect with me anymore. What can I do about this?”

Since I’d worked with Petr on several occasions, I knew that he had always encouraged an open communication policy with his staff. What I needed to find out was how he handled the ideas submitted to him.

I asked him when was the last time one of his employees came to see him to share one of their ideas. He took a few minutes to think about it and replied, “Last week, Martin came to me with a brilliant suggestion to improve customer service.”

I asked what he did about the idea and how he handled Martin’s suggestions. Petr took a few more minutes to think about my question and said, “I told him that his idea was wonderful, but if I were him I would do it another way than the one he recommended.”

Petr’s answer told me where the problem was. While trying to improve the quality of Martin’s idea, he had reduced by 30 percent Martin’s commitment to executing it. He had taken away Martin’s ownership of the idea. Petr’s attempt to add value to Martin’s idea had backfired. He had actually demotivated Martin instead of supporting his creative and innovative idea.

Petr’s winning attitude helped him to become a successful businessman. Yet when winning becomes an obsession it can be counterproductive. Regardless of the importance of the issue, Petr always wanted to win, even if it wasn’t worth his time or if it was to his disadvantage. And unfortunately his staff had become aware of it and it was starting to jeopardize their communication and relationship.

The higher up Petr got on the corporate ladder, the more he needed to learn the importance of making other people winners and letting them be responsible for the success of their ideas.

I told Petr that for his staff to be comfortable about sharing their ideas with him, he first needed to listen to them without adding anything to their suggestions. I told him to take a deep breath and to count to five before responding. After he got into the habit of doing this, he realized that about half of what he was going to say wasn’t worth saying. Even though he thought he was right, he understood that he was gaining a lot by not winning every argument and by letting his employees keep the credit for their ideas.

The next step Petr needed to follow was to change the perception his staff had that he needed to win at all cost. What he needed to do was to reconnect with his staff and let them know that he was serious about changing his communication style.

My suggestion to Petr was for him to ask his staff how he could do a better job listening. At first his co-workers were reluctant to come up with specific ways, as they worried Petr would not take criticism well. But Petr was committed to improving communication with his employees and benefiting from their ideas and suggestions. He was well aware that those ideas would help him win in the long term, even though he had to give up the short-term satisfaction of feeling he’d won the argument. He convinced his staff to share with him how he could be a better listener and a better boss. Petr’s staff might not themselves be experts on the topic of listening, but they certainly knew more than Petr about how he had failed to listen to them.

If you want to have a better relationship with your co-workers, the people who can help you the most are your co-workers. They’re the ones who will give you the solution to the problem, provided that you ask and listen to their reply.