Do you work in a zero sum environment?

Nov 28th, 2011 | By | Category: A game, abundance, challenges, competitive challenges, competitive environment, difficult boss, focus, opportunity, tactics

The difference between zero sum and an expansion theory determines your view on competition. Some believe that rewards are limited and the more you share the less you get. This often demonstrated by dividing the proverbial pie. The more you share the smaller piece of pie. Others believe in the expansion theory, sometimes referred to as universal abundance. Universal abundance expands to meet the needs of the participants. In other words if you start dividing the pie, it will either grow larger or more pies will appear so there is always enough to go around. Both theories have merit. If the department budget is limited, then the more your boss gives you the less there is for him. However if the budget is set by profits the more profit the more money available for raises and bonuses. This is the basis of working on commission, the more you sell the more you make. There is a limit, but in most cases if sales exceeded production capacity, the production capacity can be expanded to meet demand.

Both theories have merit depending on the situation. However, a zero sum theory is usually applied to games so there can be a clear winner. Like playing Monopoly there is a set amount of money and property available. Unlike the real economy, which has to constantly expand to maintain or increase to meet demand. If all the houses are sold, in a real economy more houses would be built, and the money would expand to enable the game to continue.

Your view of whether the workplace is a zero sum or expanding determines your focus and competiveness. Too often we narrow our focus that limits our options and places in a zero sum situation. This often leads to fierce competition. For example, when I started working there was an organizational chart with all the jobs listed. They were no visible avenues to advance unless someone retired or quit. It was like dominos. When a higher slot opened everyone who was eligible would apply to get a promotion. There was one winner and the rest stayed put. This was a trickle down system where as one vacancy was filled another opened. There were few vacancies and few outside hires. There were a few winners and several losers for each opening. The competition was fierce for it may be years before a promotion would open up. Then things changed. The top level for employees was set equal to the managers. Although difficult a staffer could advance to the top pay grades without being a manager. In addition, the organizational chart became more fluid as the agency’s staffing plan expanded so there were more employees, more managers, and there was a lot of lateral movement. All of sudden instead of waiting for years for a slot to open for advancement, there were several avenues to advance, even in your current position. The entire competitive landscaped changed. Instead of a narrow focus, there were several dimensions to consider. Some stayed in place and tried to advance by convincing their managers they were working at a higher level, placing their career in their boss’s hands. If you had a supportive boss promotions were not hard to come by. On the other hand if the boss was non-supportive this avenue was closed; Others moved to other departments applying for vacancies opened by others being promoted; and there was increase in management positions as more and more management positions were created. This lasted for several years, and then all of sudden it went back to the zero sum theory, only the agency started do more outside hiring.

In my opinion, a zero sum mentality is the result of a narrow focus. There are always more opportunities and options than the one vacancy in your department. Watch the organizational job postings and the want ads, there are always similar jobs opening up. By narrowing your focus to one position or career path you are hampering your ability to move forward.

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