A Better Game to Play

Many HR Managers like me have always felt that the extreme focus on ‘winning’ or being the best often produces very counter- productive currents. This has been very well captured in the following words taken from the Preface [written by Peter Block] to the book ‘The Inner Game of Work’, authored by W. Timothy Gallwey, undoubtedly one of the best books I have read.

[Quote] Many years ago, Tim and I attended a national sales conference for a large American Conference. It goes without saying that sales people like to compete. They not only like to compete, they believe in it. Competition is the point of it all; to be a winner in the marketplace is both the goal and the reward. That is true for both the business and the person. This whole sales conference was, in fact, an assembly of winners, an affirmation that they were the best in the company and probably best in the industry, perhaps in the world.

Following a presentation on Inner Game coaching, Tim agreed to manage the annual tennis tournament, a tradition at every sales conference. After all, winners love a tournament, and here they had a well-known author/tennis coach available to be maître d’ of the event. Tim, though, was not satisfied in simply presiding. He thought that the tennis tournament could provide a learning experience for each participant by asking a question. What game are you really playing?

Tim suggested that the winners of each match would be out of the tournament, and the player who lost would advance to the next round. Think of this: the loser was rewarded for losing, and the winner was sent to the sidelines. If this is the structure, what is the point of playing if “winning” got you nowhere? Well, this was the point. Each player had to confront the question of why he was playing the game. The conventional answer, especially among the salespeople, is that they play to win. Tim’s answer was that there is a better game to play, and that is to play to learn, to play to fulfill your own potential. And ironically, if you do this, you will actually get better performance.

The intent of a tournament where losers advanced and winners went home was that it would be unclear to the players whether it was in their interest to win or lose. If they best their opponent, they would, in effect, be a loser. If they lost to their opponent, they would be treated as a winner. In the face of this, they were free to shift their focus from winning or losing to simply playing for the experience itself, playing to see how good a player they could become. Philosophically, they were asked to stop dancing to the tune defined by the external world around them and encouraged to play according to their own internal message center. The tennis tournament offers a metaphor for what is possible in the workplace. [Unquote]