March 22, 2011 | Leadership, Workplace Culture + Practices

I recently watched a CBS News 60 Minutes show titled "The Age of The Millennials," also known as Generation Y (those born between 1982 and 1995) and how to understand this generation as they are entering the workforce. There was a scene in the segment in which a group of about 30 children were holding up trophies for some athletic achievement. Presumably, the classmates were not all on the same team. Regardless, everyone was a winner.

The point the interviewers were trying to make is that this notion that everyone is a winner is not mirrored in the real world. And, to the extent that a person learns to rely on this type of positive reinforcement to gauge their self-worth, then he or she is ill-prepared to succeed in the workplace.

While I don’t agree with some of the assumptions made about Gen Y’ers, the segment did start me thinking about the concept of “winners and losers.” As an HR professional it’s part of my job to help managers identify who their top performers are and to support and develop merit-based workplace programs. In the workplace, not all jobs are created equal. But is this really what the concept of winning is about?

Survival of the Fittest

As human beings, we learned a long, long, long time ago the importance of winning. Millions of years ago being a winner meant living to see another day. But what about in today’s world, when the stakes in terms of the survival of our species are not so high? While war still rages on across the globe, most of us don’t need to win to stay alive.

And yet, winning and losing has become a lens through which we view our lives. Think about how this concept comes through even in our everyday language: “You’re either for me or against me.” “We need to level the playing field.” “It’s a no-win situation.”  “That’s a win-win proposition (or win-lose or lose-lose).”  There are countless other examples of jargon around winning and losing that have permeated our daily language to the extent that we don’t think about what the words actually mean.

Workplace Harmony

If you win at something that means someone else has to lose. I can hear your thoughts now: “Yes of course that’s true, so what’s the problem?”

I offer that when we operate with the concept of being the winner as a frame of reference, we can’t act in ways that promote or support harmony. So here’s a thought: What if we started from a point of harmony instead of one of separation, comparison and competition?

In music, harmony is a blending of tones that is pleasing to the ear. In an organization, working harmoniously means we see ourselves as a single entity united for a common purpose. We understand each other’s role and our connection to each other. We work together toward common goals by seeing each other as partners instead of adversaries. We share ideas instead of hoard knowledge. There is no “us vs. them” mentality.

Even though we may disagree on the way to go, we all still strive to get to the same place in the end. To do that, we learn together new and better ways of working to achieve goals.

I think most people would thrive in such an environment.

Unfortunately, HR professionals can’t simply wave a magic wand and create a harmonious work environment. But every individual’s personal behavior can go a long way toward promoting harmony in the workplace. Each person can either support or hurt a harmonious environment through the way he or she responds to adversity, ambiguity, and conflict. As HR professionals, we need to examine our organization’s systems and policies to ensure that they are truly helping to promote workplace harmony and not working against it.