“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” ~Winston Churchill

Teeter-totterThere are some places in business where the scenario is a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is a situation in which one participant’s gains result only from another participant’s equivalent losses. The net change among the participants is zero; there can only be a shift from one to another.

Hunting the Elusive Zero

This is most commonly seen in the investment world. Options and futures contracts are an example. But for most investors, those instruments are kind of “exotic”. In the more bread-and-butter realms of investing, wealth can be created. So buying and selling stocks, bonds, or mutual funds is not a zero-sum game.

Some legal battles can be zero-sum games. There will be a winner and a loser. But for most business owners, this is a small or non-existent part of business. Even for those in the legal profession, the zero-sum games encountered by some of their clients don’t stick to them. They still get their retainers and fees and their clients still get legal representation in a relationship where both sides feel they have gained.

Bigger than Zero Is a Good Number

So it turns out that zero-sum games are not the common experience. If they were, no profitable commerce could take place. After all, both participants in a transaction need to feel they come out ahead if there is any hope of future transactions between the participants. When I give you money for the product you sell, I find your product more valuable to me than the money I pay. You feel happier to have the money than the inventory. Everyone wins.

So as uncommon as a zero-sum game ought to be, I submit to you that you participate in them all the time. In fact, you create them even though they are neither required nor called for. Right now you might be thinking, “I’m not investing in any fancy-pants derivatives or fending off any lawsuits. How could I be creating zero-sum games?”

Right Minus Wrong Equals Zero?

It happens every time you demand to be right. If you view every dispute, disagreement or unresolved difference as a zero-sum game, you fall into a trap.

When the only possibility allowed is that someone must be right and someone must be wrong, when the score has to be zeroed out, you cut off a majority of the possible outcomes and the lion’s share of where creative solutions lie.

This is why you fight so hard to make the other person wrong. Their being wrong is a required component for you to be right in the zero-sum game. So rather than focusing on making the case for your position, you focus on tearing down the position of your “opponent”. So long as they go down, you must go up — or so the zero-sum theory goes.

The flaw with this approach is that my suggestion’s failure does not make your suggestion successful. All the energy is put into tearing down rather than building up. The whole picture doesn’t get examined as examining one half is all that is required in a zero-sum game.

The Some-Sum Game

In real life problem solving all sides must be examined. Furthermore, in the real world there may be more than two sides, perhaps far more. All sides are not necessarily worthy of equal examination. Some arguments may be dismissed out of hand. But they must be dismissed in awareness, not left unexamined and presumed accurate because the “opposite” fell when it came under scrutiny.

The reason the zero-sum game is compelling to us is because we tend to get attached to our positions. Once that attachment takes place, the position becomes special, presumed superior, perhaps even above examination. But that’s no way to run a railroad.

Wanting to be right is a tyrant. It requires unquestioning allegiance. It is tolerant of irrational and biased behavior. It is resistant to reason and facts.

“Wanting to be right is a tyrant.” click to tweet

I’m Always Right — Eventually

Do you want to be right all the time? Of course you do. So here is how you can do it without it becoming your dictator. Be right after the fact. Be flexible up front when considering options. If something proves to work, accept it, own it. It doesn’t matter whose idea it was. What matters is you let it come into being, to be manifested in reality. You get to count it as a win. Give credit where credit is due and celebrate the good outcome. What could be more right than that?

Where have you been right after the fact? Tell us about it by commenting below.

Photo credit: Laura Bernhardt

Beware the Tyranny of Being Right
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2 thoughts on “Beware the Tyranny of Being Right

  • Permalink

    What happens if the person you are arguing with thinks it is a zero sum game even if you don’t?

    • Permalink

      What happens is they have a different experience than you. You do not have to be impacted by them. It is your choice to rise above it.


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