Tuesday, November 25, 2008 by Dave Blum

My wife, Jen, and I were playing the card game, Bohnanza, Saturday night, and there I was losing — badly.  I believe the technical term is “getting whomped.”  The fact that Jen was routing me at a card game is not entirely earth shattering; she’s a brilliant gal, a Stanford Ph.D., and this was her kind of game:  all about seeking out patterns and manipulating numbers.  I do much better at word games, like Scrabble and Boggle; as a former English major, numbers have never been my thing.  In any case, it wasn’t a total shocker, then, that Jen was beating me at Bohnanza.  The surprise was that we were in such a “mano a mano” situation in the first place.

You see, Jen and I decided early on in our relationship that we didn’t like the feeling of playing competitive games together.  In a zero sum game such as Bohnanza, one person wins, the other person loses.  As a couple, we tend to shy away from games that give rise to aggressive emotions, such as “I will crush and dominate you.”  On the other extreme, such competitive games can engender feelings of insecurity, like “I am a loser compared to you.”   Why court danger by purposely putting ourselves in such an adversarial position.  As if those negative feelings don’t come up enough on their own in a long-term relationship!

So, back to Saturday night.  There we were, for some reason engaging in a competitive, emotionally-risky card game, and I was losing 18 to 11 in the first round.  I had a choice; fixate on the relative discrepancy of our scores and get angry at either my wife or myself, OR…shift the paradigm!   So I said, “Hey Jen, look, our TOTAL score is 29 points. Let’s play again and see if WE can top that collective score.”  As is turned out, in the next round, Jen got 27 points and I got 17; I had improved my own score by 6 points, which felt good, and even better, we had increased OUR total to 44.  We’d done it!   Sure, Jen had still beaten me, but it didn’t feel as bad, knowing that her success helped US.

Most any competitive game can be flipped in this manner, so that it becomes more friendly and collaborative.  The activity is still competitive; the goal, however, becomes “exceed our previous high score, as a team.”   Imagine what your organization might be like with such an approach!

For more on the topic of collaboration vs. competition, check out the following article, or read Alfie Kohn’s “No Contest: The Case Against Competition.”