As orginally posted on

It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.
-Albert Einstein

Revisiting unfortunate truth of leadership. 

In part one and two of our Lead to Win series, we discussed how leaders often unknowingly make the shift from playing to win, to playing not to lose.

Typically, four important aspects of successful leadership are impacted:

Innovation, Change, Communication, Sustainability

Last time we discussed how a scarcity mentality stunts authentic innovation and change, essentially crippling an organization over time. Today, we will focus on how playing not to lose affects communication. We’ll wrap up with sustainability in part four.

Understanding your mental models.

Your experiences and your interpretation of those experiences slowly and subtly lead to beliefs and assumptions, or mental models, that then drive your behavior. 

Those mental models may be driving you to play not to lose instead of playing to win.  We will present some “playing not to lose” mental models, as well as their antithesis “playing to win”, mental models for your reflection in each of the four areas mentioned above.

An example of playing not to lose.

A key leader of an award winning healthcare company was struggling with what seemed a dip in accountability within his leadership team. Scores and measures that were usually reached were experiencing large dips. There had been several large initiatives that could help explain a dip, however, not for this long.

When he asked his leaders what was happening, they repeatedly offered logical reasons for the dip. They continued to share they knew what was wrong and they “had it”. The leader knew he had competent leaders on his team and trusted it when they said they had it.

He became frustrated and couldn’t understand how a team that had once been exceeding the goals was now offering what seemed like excuses that bordered on incompetency. As his frustration grew, his communication became more abrupt, expectations unclear to his team and communication flow had all but stopped unless demanded.

Stepping back to get clarity.

The leader took a day off to get clear on the situation and create a solution. He enlisted a peer from another organization to assist him in working through his problem. His peer started to ask what seemed like obvious questions;

  • Do your leaders understand what is being asked?
  • Are your leaders competent?
  • Are your leaders moving the message down intact and aligned to the larger goals?

He found himself becoming very defensive and knew from experience that was a sign for more inquiry. So, he let his shoulders fall and started to answer the “obvious”.

It wasn’t long before he shook his head and realized the disconnect was that the competing needs of the system had his team unable to set priorities, and thus, their teams were in a flurry to make it “all” happen at the same time. His frustration heightened:

  • Why didn’t they ask for help?
  • Why hadn’t they pushed back by explaining the costs of his requests?
  • Why didn’t they say they couldn’t get it “all” done?

Digging into that brought forward the reality that more than half of his team was less than a year in their current roles; while they were very competent in their respective disciplines, they each had 3 to 5 areas to oversee.

Together, he and his peer:

  • Created a communication strategy to help address the current state, desired state, and the gap
  • Set priorities and a pathway for each leader to drive toward the goal with their available resources
  • Mapped out the gaps of knowledge or relationships needed to acquire knowledge for each leader

While the process came very natural to him, it assisted him in seeing what targets were being missed and that the staff was unusually stressed.

The quest for excellence within his organization was not meant to be at all costs. 

His confidence reappeared as he created his communication plan, which was built on the simple, previously missing, power of “inquiry”.  To help get this going and to start to rebuild trust and repair relationships, he started asking one key question every time he made a request:

“What is the cost or impact of what I’m asking?”

Curious inquiry unlocks organization-wide accountability.

Three months into implementing his plan and utilizing inquiry into all communications:

  • The measures were headed back in the right direction
  • Staff sick time was reducing
  • Barriers were identified to him so he could help to remove or manage them quickly

This helped the collective understand the goal so they could, once again, prioritize the work to align with the goal.

Communication is a leader’s best tool. Becoming masterful of it separates the good from the great.

Here are some beliefs, or mental models, about communication that can cause you as a leader to unintentionally sabotage your successful leadership:

Playing NOT to LOSE Mental Model Playing to WIN mental Model
I told them once, that should be enough I wonder what could be in the way for them to not have delivered what they said they would
If they don’t understand, it is their responsibility to ask me The sender of the information is accountable for confirming the message was received and understood. Curious Inquiry is a great tool here
The only way to get their attention is to raise my voice This is a sucker’s choice, there are always more than one way to address an issue.  Being situationally aware and able to adjust your communication “style” to the one needed is the sender’s responsibility
I will just wait it out they/it will go away Stepping into a needed communication is healthy and respectful.  Learning effective communication skills is essential to being timely and effective in your communication.  Avoiding conflict is not the best answer, get good at it.
If they really cared they would have done it I wonder what could be in the way for them to not have delivered what they said they would
It isn’t me, it is them The wins and losses of the team are a WE event. The ability to create accountability is the solution to a US VS THEM culture
  • When you are communicating are you confirming your message was received as it was intended?
  • Are you aware of your style under stress?
  • Do you have strategies to set you up for success under stress?
  • Are you curious or telling?


Understand the true cost of poor communication when your people avoid saying what needs to be said!

Download the Cost of Conflict Avoidance Paper

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