Everyone a Winner?

By Donald Christiansen

Because you and I are both members of the human race we have instilled within us, from birth on, the desire to win. Winning requires being singled out for a particular accomplishment, or, at the very least, being recognized as part of a winning team.

I was once on a business trip that took me to several countries in Europe. During a weekend of leisure I was visiting classic architectural sites in Greece. I was traveling on foot, unaware that a soccer contest between a local team and one from Italy had just ended. Suddenly a violent rush of soccer fans came roaring down the hilly road. It had seemed the game was over. But was it? With the “winners” on one side of the road and the “losers” on the other, the two groups jeered and insulted one another, along with a good share of punching and tripping.

A helpful stranger, noting my non-participation, explained that this was hardly an unusual post-game exercise. He urged me to remain standing quietly by the lamppost where I had stopped, and say nothing until the crowd passed. He also noted that sometimes more fans were injured in these post-game “contests” than players during the game itself.

The importance of winning and the “dishonor” of losing in the sporting world is reflected in the slogan “Winning Isn’t Everything; It’s the Only Thing.”

Wins in the Business World

Sporting events are not the only scenarios for aggressive must-win actions. A Harvard Business Review article describes how poor business decisions often result from an adrenaline-fueled emotional state called competitive arousal. The authors illustrate how costly errors occur when managers and executives shift their goals from maximizing value to beating an opponent at great expense—as, for example, in paying far more than fair value to win a contract sought also by a major competitor.

These faulty actions at the corporate level happen more frequently when high-stakes decisions (e.g., millions and billions of dollars) are involved, and when corporate rivalry is intense. Rivalry and personal enmity between top executives of competing companies can prompt costly decisions that could have been avoided had they been made instead by a group of colleagues or an executive board.


Business news reporters and their readers are drawn to heated disagreements between the prominent leaders of competing corporations, and they in turn may be induced to escalate the tension in negotiations when they are identified by name in publications like Business Week or The New York Times.

In reporting one particular faulty acquisition, Harvard Business Review noted that competitive arousal caused the “winning” acquirer’s executive to shift the corporation’s goals from maximizing value to “beating an opponent at almost any cost.”  Fortune, re the same acquisition, called it a “stark lesson in how the single-minded pursuit of victory can blind even brilliant execs to the true cost of a deal . . . it sheds new light on [an industry that] is marked by deep personal animosity and furious combat in the marketplace and the courtroom.”

In still another example of the pressure to be a winner, live auctions are reputed to prompt significantly more competitive arousal than do internet auctions. In a live auction, an individual bidder is seen by other bidders as a very specific “enemy” of sorts, and others present are challenged to overbid to beat him (or her).

Winning Engineers/Scientists

Do engineers and other technologists endorse the notion that winning is a must? In a 2002 column, I wrote that most historians of technology subscribe to the notion that engineers are, or at least were, individualistic and independent, and both proud and protective of their own accomplishments. Historians cite pioneers like Tesla, Armstrong, and Farnsworth, who appeared to do their best work in isolation and did not work especially well in the corporate environment. In those days it was easier to determine who deserved credit for a particular development or invention. As for essentially similar inventions, it was easier to determine who did what and when.

Though engineers today are frequently required to work in teams, they may go to great lengths to prove why a colleague’s idea is unworkable, or at least how their own is better. And when so many developments are supported by multiple-author papers and patents it is more difficult to single out one person for a related award. Consequently today’s engineers may need to satisfy themselves with the knowledge and awareness of their personal “wins,” without the broader acknowledgement of the public or even of the engineering community at large.

They may have to compensate by supporting a soccer team.



  • Malhotra, D., Ku, G., and Murnighan, J. K., “When Winning Is Everything,” Harvard Business Review, May, 2002.
  • Key, S., 13 Critical Traits of Successful Inventors retrieved Oct. 1, 2019
  • Christiansen, D., “Engineers as Inventors,” The Best of Backscatter, Vol. 1,
  • Rabinow, J., Inventing for Fun and Profit, San Francisco Press, 1990.
  • Christiansen, D., “Credit Where Due.,” Today’s Engineer, June, 2005.
  • Schwartz, E. I., The Last Lone Inventor, Harper Collins, 2002.
  • Lessing, L., Man of High Fidelity: Edwin Howard Armstrong, Lippincott, 1956.
  • Christiansen, D., “Getting on Prime Time: Mission Impossible?,” Today’s Engineer,  Dec., 2004.
  • Doble, J. and M. Komarnicki, Report on the Public Perception of Engineers, National Academy of Engineering, 1986.

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. He can be reached at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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