You want to win. Is there a better way to be a winner?

Earlier in my career I worked for a startup software company. I was in product management. Then, as now, there was a shortage of qualified engineers, so the company paid a generous bounty if they hired someone you referred.

Rachel was a friend of a friend. She was a software engineer and I learned that she had recently left a job and was looking. So I reached out to her about openings at my company.

As it turned out, she’d already heard about the company from people she knew. So at my urging, she allowed me to recommend her, she interviewed, and she took a position as a software engineer.

Pretty soon after that, I learned that she and one of the other engineers, Fred, were really good friends. She was happy to be working with Fred — and of course, because of their friendship, she’d known about the openings at our company for quite a while. She’d been talking to Fred before she applied and during the interview process.

Fred’s role and mine didn’t normally call for much interaction, but he had always seemed like a nice enough guy. So one day, I started talking to him about Rachel being hired.

“I feel a little weird,” I said. “I got a bounty for passing Rachel’s resume along, but it’s clear you were friends with her first.”

“That’s true,” he replied. “I think I had a lot to do with her being hired here.”

“Do you think you deserve the bounty?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You followed the company’s process, so you get credit for the referral.”

“I think maybe you deserve it more than me,” I said.

“I’m not sure,” he responded. “I think you got it, so you deserve it. What matters is she got hired and we’re all pleased about that.”

I could tell that he wasn’t completely happy with how things turned out, but didn’t want to make a big deal about it. I felt like maybe he ought to get the bounty, but I also was pretty happy about getting the money myself.

Splitting it up meant I’d have to write him a check. That seemed a little mercenary. Somehow, it just wasn’t the right answer.

So we were sort of stuck.

Food for thought

For days, I wondered what I should do. Then I had an idea. I bumped into Fred in the break room.

“Hey, Fred,” I asked. “Have you ever heard of this restaurant?” And I mentioned the most exclusive, fanciest restaurant in Boston, a place everybody knew was booked for weeks ahead.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ve never been there, though.”

Neither had I.

“Let’s go to dinner there,” I said. “We’ll use the bounty payment I got for Rachel to pay for it.”

Fred’s eyes lit up. There was no way he was going to be extravagant enough to go this restaurant under normal circumstances. But now he’d get to go for free.

“Can I bring my wife?” he asked.

“Let’s make it a celebration,” I said. “Bring your wife, of course. Sounds like fun.”

I booked us a table for about a month later. And the restaurant lived up to its reputation. It was on the second floor of a brownstone in Boston’s Back Bay, in a couple of dining rooms that looked more like somebody’s swanky apartment than a restaurant. There were sommeliers and incredibly solicitous servers, dressed formally, who always seemed to appear at just the moment you needed them. We didn’t hold back. We ordered appetizers and wine — and not the cheapest one on the menu, either. The dishes were exotic and full of incredible flavors. The desserts were elaborate and extravagant. The conversation flowed easily; Fred and his wife and I had a great time.

I think we were the youngest people in the place.

When it was time to pay the check, it was clear that the bounty was just enough to pay for the whole meal, but not the tip. So we agreed to split the tip. That seemed fine — for less than the price of an ordinary meal in an ordinary restaurant, we’d treated ourselves to a dining experience far beyond what we’d normally have been comfortable paying for.

Instead of carrying a little grudge around, now we were friends, too. That felt a lot better than it had before.

What is winning?

These days, it seems like an article of faith that you can’t win unless you beat the next person. It’s ingrained in our politics, where the party out of power has little interest in working with the people in charge. Everything we read appears to be about scoring points on some imaginary tote board. Competition is ingrained in America. And civility seems to be receding in the rear-view mirror.

But when I see this, I think back to my meal with Fred and his wife. I didn’t just lift a little guilt from head. I made a friend. We all had a unique experience. He won. I won. Rachel won. The company won. Everybody was a little better off than had been before.

That felt a lot better than beating Fred out of the bonus.

(Looking back what happened from the perspective of many decades of experience, I can see that I did make one mistake, though — we should have invited Rachel to join us for dinner.)

Right now, you’re probably engaged in a competition or a negotiation. If it works out, you get more and the other person gets less. If it doesn’t, you get less and they get more.

Is there a way you could share an experience and build a relationship, instead of beating each other up?

It means a change in mindset. It means when you feel like taking, you imagine, instead, what it would feel like to give.

Maybe it means you both have to give something up, just as Fred and I did. But what will you gain?

And how will it benefit your soul?

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  1. Thank you for this. I wish I had a way to ensure everyone in the world would read it. ANY converts would be a vast improvement. Especially in business, competition rules. The marvelous thing about retirement is that you can “afford” to make and be friends. It is such a relief!

  2. If you are a fan of Steven Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” you know about win-win. This is such a helpful reminder that a thoughtful approach to an awkward or unfair situation can make a world of difference, both short- and long-term.

  3. And this underscores for me why we share our stories. Your gut steered you well at the time. You won’t remember the cash, but you made an emotional memory, and you strengthened a friendship.

    And I will remember ” we should have included Rachel”!

  4. I’m delighted by your essay and the question with which you conclude, “And how will it benefit your soul?” Regrettably, this question and its converse, “How will it harm your soul?” are no longer fair game. I’ll leave it to your readers to reason why.

    I agree with Oprah who asked (and I’m paraphrasing here), as we abandon our churches, synagogues and mosques, where will we turn for moral education, guidance and emphasis.

  5. An example that comes to mind for me was when I had my small trade magazine in the ’90s. We lived and died by our subscribers and every two months when a new issue came out, I would get a few calls and emails from subscribers who missed the issue.

    One guy called up and angrily wanted to know why he didn’t get his last three issues. I looked up his address and read it back to him. It was his old address. He recently moved and realized he forgot to tell us.

    Now I could have jumped on him for being such a jerk but I realized, this guy is pissed because he didn’t get his issues of “our” magazine. I should be glad he was angry and upset.

    So I updated his address, told him I will send the three issues he missed, and though his subscription was up for renewal we would renew it for the next three issues free of charge. From that point on he was a loyal subscriber and I felt friggin’ awesome.