The ‘Winning at All Costs’ Culture

In September 2015, Volkswagen, the highly respected auto giant was in the news for all the wrong reasons. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had found that several VW cars sold in the US have been fitted with something called a ‘defeat device’ that basically ensured favourable emission results whenever the car was being tested, despite actual emissions being much higher. The objective, presumably, was to win in the US market. VW was keen to push its diesel cars in the US. In fact, it even mounted a major marketing campaign highlighting the cars’ low emissions.

More recently, cricket lovers from across the globe watched the disgraced Australian Cricket captain Steve Smith break down and express what seemed like genuine remorse as he admitted to the ball tampering charges.

These (and many other such) instances beg the question: What makes these highly successful organisations willingly resort to something so risky and, more importantly, use tactics that are not necessarily right and get ahead?

Everyone Loves a Winner

In general, winning is a good thing that brings positive results. Whether in sports or industry or any field, winners are celebrated and held as role models for others to emulate. In our own work with clients, often, one of the important ‘asks’ is to build a high-performance culture. Organisations want to build winning teams that can go out there and deliver results. People always look at achievement orientation often with a killer instinct in employees.

But, at what stage does it all become inappropriate and cross the boundaries of what is right? The problem arises when winning become so important that we’re willing to overlook things like basic decency, a sense of fairness and concern for the greater good in our pursuit of victory.

The challenge for organisations is to find a way to balance the culture of winning with a culture of being responsible. Here are some steps to consider:

Start at the Top

While it is about winning, it is also about winning the right way – This message must be driven right from the top. When the leader vocalizes what is ok and what is not, it sets the tone for the entire organisation.

Emphasize Values

Values shouldn’t just be confined to posters displayed on walls but should be incorporated into every process and every interaction within the organisation. Everyone, starting from top leadership, needs to live and breathe values.

Communicate the Big Picture

While employees may be aware of their short-term individual goals, very few of them have a deep understanding or appreciation for the company’s overall direction and its impact on the world. Why does the company exist? What difference is it making to the world? What does it stand for? Going back to the Australian cricket incident, Steve Smith’s statement where he said, “I’m sorry to those people who look up to me around the world, especially children,” is a great example of awareness of one’s impact on the world, although it unfortunately came a bit late in this case.

Get Priorities Straight

If your biggest priority is simply to hit the sales target numbers for the quarter no matter what, the message you are sending is that you expect people to do whatever it takes, whether it is unfair or even jeopardises your own future. For example – undercutting prices to such an extent that it will come back and haunt you in the coming quarters. Setting your priorities straight and aligning them with your long-term goals is the key.

To sum up: Success is important; but how you achieve this success is equally important.