Zero-Sum Games

Have you ever heard of zero-sum games? How about non-zero sum games? For those of you who have not heard of zero-sum games, allow me to briefly explain and share some links. It comes from political and economic theory, and it means if wins are plusses and losses are negatives, the equation will end up with zero. Think about money. We start with zero, Alfred borrows 10 so he can buy widgets from Zeno. Alfred gives Zeno the 10. Alfred has -10 and Zeno has +10, and the system has zero sum.

While there are lots of games we play that actually add up numbers, such as football, in the end one team has more points than the other and is therefore the winner. What matters is not how many points but the difference between them and who has more. This zero-sum game mentality shows up in our behaviors toward each other. Do we act as if my having something means you can’t have it? It puts us in a competition mind frame, and we behave like opponents.

What if there are non-zero sum games? Can we, as humans, transcend the competition mindset and behave cooperatively? What if there are games where helping you do well helps me do well? Sure, there are lots of places we interact where this is appropriate! I have always been surprised that business plans have competition analysis and yet don’t adequately describe the cooperation network the organization will be embedded in.

The real question I want to address here, now that we know a bit about zero-sum and non-zero sum games: how do we work in non-zero sum ways when people we need to work with operate from a zero-sum mind frame?

First and foremost, trying to change others through argument or explanation often just makes them defensive and resistant. I suggest a two-prong approach.

  1. Use their zero-sum mentality to your advantage – and the advantage of the group. Ask where the zero-sum games are – because they exist, and point these zero-sum minded folks to those opportunities.
  2. Demonstrate success of non-zero sum approach. Model what you want to see in the world. Be the change you seek. Through demonstration, others can see the success that comes from it. What they are truly after is success.

That sounds all well and good in an abstract theoretical way. But the situation at hand is not an ideal – it is a specific. And likely in that specific, you, my non-zero sum friends, are on a board of an organization having to navigate decisions about the organization with a zero-sum thinking collaborator, for example. What do you do?

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Evil Erin

First I want to talk about body work. So much of what we communicate happens in the body rather than through our words. Avoid sitting across from people who want to act oppositionally. Sit beside them. When they talk about a problem, be sure they gesture toward a shared space in front of them rather than at you. Imagine that they are playing dodgeball as if they were one of those tennis ball launching machines – stay away from the physical space they are launching at with their gestures.

Second, I want to talk about a model of understanding interpersonal dynamics. I use this model often when talking about relationships between people.WeDiagram The diagram, at right, shows two people, A and B, as well as a third node – the WE of A and B. Zero-sum thinkers usually think of their connection as the gray line from you to them. Helping them think beyond zero-sum involves helping them understand the WE connection. When we are in the AB relationship, we still use words like: I, me, mine, you, yours. When we are in the WE of AB, we talk about: we, our, ours. These pronouns point to what we have together in the relationship. demonstrate WE language. Start with you and the zero-sum person. As the language becomes reflected in their statements, you can begin to expand the WE to include others. Keep expanding until you reach we as a community (or what level you need to be at for the group objectives).

Next I want to share a bit about facilitation questions. Our zero-sum thinkers say they want to do something. Ask, “what will that get for you/us?” When they give an answer, ask again, “What will that get for you/us?” First, this helps them feel heard. They have the attention. Be sure to ask in a kind and inquisitive way, because they will quickly intuit if you are asking in order to undermine them. Remember, they think in competitive ways. When you get to a gem – something that is common ground for the collective – in the answer you get from the “what will that get for you/us” THEN ask, “how else might we be able to get that?” Bring in others to help answer that.

This is a brief introduction to ways to navigate zero-sum thinking. We can continue to explore, especially with specific stories. If you have specific needs you want to discuss, we can discuss your issues in a private context via my coaching services.

I would love to hear ways you have navigated zero-sum thinkers in the comments or on twitter (@nurturegirl).

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