Winning is a concept that’s deeply ingrained in our culture. The problem is when we need to win all the time—even when the stakes are trivial or the price of victory is high.

Each time we prove ourselves right with a colleague or client, we make them wrong. The continuous blows we deliver to their egos are a surefire way to destroy relationships.

According to Marshall Goldsmith, best-selling author and coach to Fortune 500 executive superstars, “Needing to win too much is the number one challenge for successful people.” At work, an “I win, you lose” mindset typically manifests as the need to be right, and it triggers a host of negative behaviors that range from obnoxious to demoralizing, including:

Telling the world how smart we are. We do this in a million subtle and not so subtle ways. Let’s say a direct report goes out of her way to give you a heads-up on a trend in the third-quarter new business numbers before your afternoon sales meeting. Instead of expressing appreciation for keeping you informed, you say, “Yes, I noticed that when I reviewed the report last week.” This is about your need to remind the world how smart you are. What your colleague hears is, “Why are you bothering me with that? I’m already five steps ahead of you.” Next time, she won’t be so quick to share. Being smart turns people on; telling them how smart we are turns them off.

Passing judgment. Do you find yourself needing to weigh in and rate every idea? You might tell yourself that you are supporting your colleagues, but what you’re really doing is positioning yourself as the chief arbiter of what is good and bad, right and wrong. You hold yourself out as being superior to your colleagues.

Adding too much value. Even when someone’s work is sound, are you compelled to make it better? We tell ourselves it’s an admirable trait, but left unchecked it can be destructive. Consider this example: John, vice president of a national brokerage firm, asked his division heads to develop a plan for increasing the policy-count per client. The cross-disciplinary team worked on it for weeks and was enthused about their strategy. John was impressed too, but he couldn’t resist the urge to put his stamp on the plan. By the time John was finished adding value, the project no longer belonged to the team. Their sense of ownership, and their enthusiasm, were gone.

Killing others’ ideas. When you listen to others’ suggestions or potential solutions, do you find yourself saying things like ‘‘Yes, but …” or “We tried that”? No matter how gentle your tone is or how nice you sound on the surface, the message the other person hears is, “You’re wrong.” Nothing productive can come out of this kind of remark. It only stifles conversation and makes people reluctant to contribute.

Interrupting. Do you grow impatient listening to others and find yourself interjecting? Perhaps you think you know where the person is going and can get there faster or that he is missing the point and you need to get the conversation back on track. Whatever the intention, when you interrupt, you tell people that what they’re saying is not as important as what you have to say. They feel disrespected, and you miss out on the opportunity to learn from others.

Behind the Need to Win

We have a deep-seated need to win at whatever we do and perhaps an even stronger need to avoid losing, or at least appearing to lose. Thank your ego for that. Ego is the source of much conflict and discord because it pushes us in the direction of making others wrong. Ego loves to divide us between winners and losers. When we win, our ego feels strong, safe and secure. But when we lose, it’s a significant blow to the ego that can leave us feeling fearful, insecure, deficient or small.

The more ego-driven people are, the more they need to win and be viewed by others as winners. In contrast, leaders with healthy egos, who have the self-awareness and control to keep their egos in check, don’t need to win to validate their intelligence and value.

In a hypercompetitive industry like insurance, the drive to win is vital to success. The power lies in discerning between when winning matters and when the higher value lies in letting it go. Next time you find yourself needing to win, stop, take a breath and ask:

  • Why am I fighting so hard to make this point? Is this about my desire to help or about proving how smart I am?
  • Is this discussion worth my time and effort? Given my goals, can I use my energy more wisely?
  • What’s more important, winning the point or my relationship with this person?
  • Would conceding my point help to build rapport or contribute to the individual’s development?

Early in a career, you need to win and be right. But as you move up the ladder, it becomes more important to lead and give others the space to win and be right. That takes a high level of self-awareness, a clear understanding of how your behavior impacts others and a hefty dose of self-control.

Paterson is executive coach and president of CIM. kpaterson@cim-co.com