Journal Article | Harvard Business Review | May 2008

When Winning Is Everything

by Deepak Malhotra, Gillian Ku and J. Keith Murnighan

Abstract

In the heat of competition, executives can easily become obsessed with beating their rivals. This adrenaline-fueled emotional state, which the authors call competitive arousal, often leads to bad decisions. Managers can minimize the potential for competitive arousal and the harm it can inflict by avoiding certain types of interaction and targeting the causes of a win-at-all-costs approach to decision making. Through an examination of companies such as Boston Scientific and Paramount, and through research on auctions, the authors identified three principal drivers of competitive arousal: intense rivalry, especially in the form of one-on-one competitions; time pressure, found in auctions and other bidding situations, for example; and being in the spotlight - that is, working in the presence of an audience. Individually, these factors can seriously impair managerial decision making; together, their consequences can be dire, as evidenced by many high-profile business disasters. It's not possible to avoid destructive competitions and bidding wars completely. But managers can help prevent competitive arousal by anticipating potentially harmful competitive dynamics and then restructuring the deal-making process. They can also stop irrational competitive behavior from escalating by addressing the causes of competitive arousal. When rivalry is intense, for instance, managers can limit the roles of those who feel it most. They can reduce time pressure by extending or eliminating arbitrary deadlines. And they can deflect the spotlight by spreading the responsibility for critical competitive decisions among team members. Decision makers will be most successful when they focus on winning contests in which they have a real advantage - and take a step back from those in which winning exacts too high a cost.

Keywords: Decision Choices and Conditions; Auctions; Bids and Bidding; Behavior; Emotions; Personal Characteristics; Competitive Strategy; Competitive Advantage;

Citation:

Malhotra, Deepak, Gillian Ku, and J. Keith Murnighan. "When Winning Is Everything." Harvard Business Review 86, no. 5 (May 2008).