Do You Play to Win or Play to Not Lose?


by on May 27, 2016 8:00 AM

While at first blush this question may not seem to be worth your time to consider, the reality is quite the contrary.

Based on someone’s natural thinking style as well as behavioral and risk preferences, people can be characterized as playing to win, known as promotion-focused people or playing not to lose, known as prevention-focused people.

Promotion-focused people are generally optimistic who eagerly set their goals focused on the rewards they will gain as the goal is achieved. They think big and are comfortable with risk, typically work at a quick pace, and can get caught short by missing details. They can brainstorm easily and usually thrive under a forward-thinking, visionary leader.

Prevention-focused people focus their energy and goals on the avoidance of loss. In their mind, not losing is more important than winning. As a result, creative thinking is not usually their strongest suit. They tend to work more meticulously, using analytical and problem-solving skills to help ensure accuracy. They can feel highly stressed under short deadlines because they see goals as responsibilities to be accomplished. The best work environment for them is to serve or support a transactional leader who operates with more defined guidelines and structure, and has a low tolerance for errors. This helps both the manager and employee ensure the status quo will be protected.

What type of industry or jobs do these types gravitate to?

The promotion-focused are likely to be effective in segments of industries undergoing rapid change, where creativity, ingenuity, idea generation, and innovation are sought after, praised and rewarded. These have been dubbed “artistic and investigative” careers with the most common examples being musicians, copywriters, inventors, and consultants.

Prevention-focused individuals will usually be most effective in more stable industries, where avoiding catastrophic error is often the key to success. Work dubbed as “conventional and realistic” is more typical for them. Administrators, bookkeepers, accountants, technicians, and people working on the manufacturing floor are some examples. These occupations require knowledge of rules and regulations, careful execution, and a propensity for thoroughness.

In conclusion, it is critically important to make sure that everyone is in the appropriate roles and working environment. Set it up so all can thrive, with the negative impacts of burnout, unnecessary stress levels, and turnover minimized.

[Authors Note: This concept was originally discussed by Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD and E. Tory Higgins in a Harvard Business Review article in March 2013.]