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How Your Career Advancement is Not a Zero-Sum Game

Chicago baseball Zero-sum thinking

Chicago: A tale of two baseball teams

Growing up as a baseball fan in central Illinois, the big debate was whether you were a Chicago Cubs fan or a St. Louis Cardinals fan. There was the occasional Yankees or Reds or White Sox fan, but the true rivalry for that region was between the two teams in the National League’s central division. I made the unfortunate decision to follow the beleaguered Cubs.

When I graduated from college, I moved to the Chicago area with the intention of continuing my loyalty to the Cubs, and the knowledge that Chicago also had an American League team that I could root for. I could be a Cubs fan and a Sox fan.

I was quickly rebuked by Cubs and Sox fans alike.  “You can’t be both!” they all stated emphatically.

“Why not?” I would ask. “They aren’t in the same division.  They aren’t even in the same league.” It didn’t matter. Although there are a few souls like me that root for both, the majority of Cubs fans hate the Sox and the majority of Sox fans feel the same disdain for the Cubs.

The hatred goes deep. It’s not enough for one’s own team to win.  For it to be a complete victory, the other team has to lose.  I’ve tried to point out that even if your cross-town rival wins, it doesn’t affect your place in the standings. If your team wins, it’s a victory, plain and simple.

I’ve never gotten far with that argument. Most of the fans enjoy hating the other team more than they enjoy loving their favorite team.

It’s a zero-sum game. Zero-sum is a term from game theory in which any gain is balanced by a loss for another person.  It works well in an inter-division rivalry like Cubs vs. Cardinals, White Sox vs. Tigers, or Yankees vs. Red Sox. It is unfounded when one team’s loss doesn’t help the other team. The way I see it, if either team wins, Chicago wins. I’d rather both teams win every day. What Chicagoan wouldn’t want a cross-town World Series?

The same contradiction applies in the business world. Companies are in business to compete and competition implies a zero-sum game. Consider an intersection that has a Walgreens and a CVS across the street from each other. If you purchase a product at Walgreens, they gain a sale and CVS loses one. It’s a wonderful little thing we like to call capitalism.

For more information, check out Career Management for Mentors

That’s fine when the rivalry is between two competing companies. It is counterproductive when the conflict is between two individuals within the same company. If two people are vying for the same promotion, they can both start thinking zero-sum. The other person’s loss is my gain. So rather than do things to make me look good, I can just make the other guy look bad.

The resulting sabotage to the other person’s career becomes departmental sabotage, and potentially, company sabotage, especially when many individuals practice it in multiple competitive situations.

Related post: What You Should Know About Certifications and Degrees

If each person simply spent their energy trying to be successful, both individuals would be more successful. Their department would be more successful. Theoretically, the company would be more successful.

Then, when the manager had to decide on the promotion, she would be deciding between two winners – the equivalent of both of your teams being in the World Series. Although one person will lose in that competition, just as one team has to lose the World Series, he will have done so by being a winner.

There is an old saying:

There are two ways to have the tallest building in town.
Build the tallest building, or tear all the taller buildings down.

As you progress through your career, are you trying to build the tallest building, or are you just tearing the taller buildings down?

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