Habit 4: Think Win/Win

“You cannot hold people responsible for results if you supervise their methods”  Stephen Covey

This is part 4 of 7 looking at the science, or not, of Stephen Coveys ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.

I was walking through the mall once with my daughter when she was 12, she yelled out “Mum! Look at those backpacks they come with fluffy balls already attached – that is, totally win/win!”. 

I’m not sure her and Covey were exactly on the same page, but their enthusiasm was well matched.  Covey opens his chapter on win/win with an anecdote about a client whinging that his employees were selfish and would not co-operate.  Peel down one (paper-thin) layer and he offered a trip to Bermuda for the employee that sold the most.  There is no better way to make a team not co-operate than such an incentive structure.

Stop for a moment, close your eyes and tap into that feeling of being a child at a lolly scramble.  How much cooperation is in that memory?  So many corporate incentive structures mirror this without realising it.  The result? Adult employees – behaving like children at a lolly scrambles, with tears, squashed toes, pride, hair pulling and worse.

In habit 4 language -> the boss wanted win/win but had put in place a win/lose incentive structure – there was only one trip to Bermuda on offer.  Conversely “Win/Win is based on the paradigm that there is plenty for everybody”.

Covey suggests making these five elements explicit and clear in any/all win/win agreements:

1.            Desired results (but not methods).

2.            Guidelines i.e. principles, policies etc (e.g. selling your grandmother will always disqualify you from winning the trip to Bermuda, even if your sales are better than others).

3.            Resources.

4.            Accountability.

Is there any science to this win/win malarkey?

The tragic truth is – I have no idea.  Sorry.

I began my search looking to any scientific publications with win-win as well as Covey in the title.  I was excited to find a paper, even if it was just the one.  My excitement wore thin when I looked into the quality of the journal it was published in.  Also, the article was a case study.  Sure case studies are swell, but if you were dying of cancer and a drug existed for 300 dollars a pill and the only science was one patient case study … would you go there?  Exactly.

My experiences assessing Habit 4, were very similar to my recent experiences with habits 1, 2 and 3.  Hence after the failure to find direct research, I turned my energy to look for similar ideas that showed scientific rigour.   Habit four is about effective teamwork and effective delegation (as seen in the opening quote).  I chose to look at delegation and although I could find a good amount of research, nothing seemed like it might reflect the Covey ideas enough to bore either of us with.

Hence my conclusion that I did not know (as for an unpaid task I am doing in my spare time, I feel I had invested enough time over the past two weeks on trying).  It should not be this hard which gets me thinking …..

Where are we at now?

This process of looking for the science or not in Coveys 7 habits is making me despair re the overall mismatch between ‘corporate gurus’ and academic research.  Given the multi-squillion dollar per year income made off the back of such gurus advice worldwide – it is a bit shocking I have to work so hard to find said ideas reflected in hard science.   I am not ready to blame the guru or the scientist yet.  Especially as I suspect both are equally to blame.

For now I am going to hope like heck that habit 5 is kinder to all of us.  But I am also going to pay some attention to the win/win (or win/lose or lose/lose)  paradigms in my work and home ‘teams’.  I suspect (science or no science) there is a lot to learn here.

Footnotes, References and all that Jazz.


Tudor, S., & Mendez, R. (2014). Lessons from covey: Win-win principles for university-employer engagement. Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning, 4(3), 213-227. doi: 10.1108/HESWBL-06-2014-0018

This is part of a larger series on Stephen Covers 7 Habits, being:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw