Skip to main content

A Practical Summary of the Seven Habits: Habit 4, "Win-Win"

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Sid Kemp is a business consultant and author of 10 books on project management and business success.

Many different animals join together and support each other, building a living coral reef. Can people learn to do the same?

Many different animals join together and support each other, building a living coral reef. Can people learn to do the same?

Win-Win: It Sounds Obvious

"Think win-win" sounds obvious, but it isn't. The reason that it isn't goes all the way back to Part 1 of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where he introduces his paradigms. The challenge is that while the concept of "think win-win" is simple, the location of the concept in our mind is in our unconscious paradigm, in the way we look at the world. And most people do not think win-win, even if they say that they do—in fact, even if they think that they do.

Let's get clear about the concept, then look at why it is so difficult to live by.

Win, Lose, Win-Lose

The Win-Win concept is really simple. "Win" means wanting to succeed. "Lose" means expecting to fail or even wanting to fail. The first "Win" or "Lose" refers to ourselves. The second refers to other people. This leads to Table #1, The Four Success Paradigms, which shows the four paradigms each of us may have in relation to success, with examples.

Table #1: The Four Success Paradigms

Do you really believe win-win is possible?

MeThe Other PersonParadigmExample




Someone who doesn't try and doesn't think anything can work out for anyone




A martyr type who thinks that the world is a competition, and doesn't want anyone else to lose




The classic competitor: From football player to salesman




An entrepreneur who succeeds by delighting his customers

The Lose-Lose Basket of Crabs

It's said that a fisherman can fill a basket of crabs and leave it on the wharf without worrying about them crawling out. A crab can climb out of a basket. But whenever one gets on top of the others and is close to getting out, the others climb onto him, using his body to climb out themselves and pull him back down. Each crab is trying to win, playing a win-lose game. And they all end up losing.

Is it just crabs, or is that the American way of life?

Success Paradigms

A paradigm is a deeply held, partly unconscious, view of life. We develop our views of success early, probably no later than high school. But the key is that the view is a perspective, not a reality. In fact, two people with similar experiences can develop different views, different paradigms.

For example, imagine two friends on a football or soccer team in high school. One focuses on winning the game and thinks in terms of "we win, and they lose." The other focuses on teamwork and thinks, "I pass the ball to a teammate, or he passes it to me, and we can score." One is focused on the win-lose relationship between competing sports teams. The other is focused on the win-win relationship between members of the same team.

These two friends grow up. One feels that to win, to succeed in life, he has to defeat others. The other thinks that to win, he has to help others win. From the same sports experience, one learns the lesson "life is win-lose," and the other learns the lesson, "life is win-win."

But neither one is likely to know this about themselves. We live with the way we see the world, but unless we develop self-awareness, we don't see how it is that we see the world.

What It Takes to Become Win-Win

One extreme example of lose-lose living was the 100-year conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Each side felt they were the persecuted minority: the Protestants, because in Northern Ireland, they were outnumbered by the Catholics, and the Catholics, because the government was run by the British Protestants. The feuding and killing went on for a hundred years, with children growing up to avenge their parents and older brothers.

That all changed when two mothers, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, joined together to form Women for Peace, later called Peace People, and call for an end to violence in Northern Ireland. On accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Betty Williams explained the moment of her paradigm shift to win-win thinking:

A deep sense of frustration at the mindless stupidity of the continuing violence was already evident before the tragic events of that sunny afternoon of August 10, 1976. But the deaths of those four young people in one terrible moment of violence caused that frustration to explode, and create the possibility of a real peace movement . . . As far as we are concerned, every single death in the last eight years, and every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother's labour spurned.

The final bullet point of the Declaration of the Peace People defines win-win thinking:

We dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbours, near and far, day in and day out, to build that peaceful society in which the tragedies we have known are a bad memory and a continuing warning.

Everyone Says They're Win-Win

Losers Who Think They Want to Win

You wouldn't think that there would be many lose-win people in business, but there are. These people think they are win-win. They say—and believe—that they succeed by helping others. But they give away the store. They under-charge, or they work extra without asking for extra cash.

In independent business, they price their work without counting the value of their own work time. Their clients and bosses are often happy. But they are not. They say they are glad to help out, but deep down, they remain unfulfilled, underpaid, and dissatisfied. If they don't go postal, then they end up poor and depressed at the end of a long career.

Win-Lose at the End of the Day

There is one unfortunate side-effect of the success of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Since the book's publication, everyone has heard of "win-win." And it's such a great idea, such a catchy slogan. What is more appealing than a salesman who says, "I think win-win. I look out for my customers"?

What is more appealing than really being win-win? Just one thing: Saying it about ourselves, even if it is not true.

People who hear the idea without doing the difficult work of honest self-examination are likely to truly believe they are win-win. But when it comes to closing the deal, they will still add on an unnecessary (and highly profitable) warranty or finance offer or add-on. Or they will sell an inferior product. Or they will fail to follow up with good customer service.

Why? Because the paradigm is deeper than words. If, underneath our self-image, we truly think that it's a dog-eat-dog world, we're still going to want to be top dog at the end of the day. So we say "win-win," but we live "win-lose."

Win-Lose / Lose-Win

I've seen one other version of the Win-Lose paradigm that Covey doesn't mention in 7 Habits. Some people believe that competition is just the way the world is. Sometimes, they go for the win. Sometimes, they accept the loss. For example, they might be very competitive at work but let their wife win every argument.

But, with this paradigm, they can't believe win-win is a real option. At work, they will not be true team players. And at home, if the marriage hits the rocks, therapy will not be an option for them, because they don't want to make the wife unhappy, and they think the only way to make her happy is to lose.

Real Win-Win is Very Rare

In my experience, there are few people who really think win-win. Even people who live win-win in one area of their lives—for example, people in the helping professions like nursing or psychotherapy—are likely not to see the world as win-win. There is a simple reason for this: The world can be win-win, but there are so few win-win people out there, that we rarely run into one. So it is hard to believe win-win can be real. And it is even harder to find a win-win partner or team who will make it real with us.

Why "Or No Deal"?

Stephen Covey proposes that once we understand the value of win-win synergy, there's no point in going for anything else. And I've found that to be true. If I can't find someone to work with who wants win-win, I'd rather work alone, even if it takes longer to get what I want.

Win-win is great when I can make it happen. I'm willing to give it a try—probably more often than I should. I end up starting a lot of projects that look promising. But, all too often, the other person ends up claiming win-win, even believing he is win-win, but underneath it all is still trying to climb up by dragging someone else down, or he is committed to self-sabotage, talking about success but not making it happen.

I haven't given up hope, but I've learned my lesson. I'm very cautious about investing in partnerships.

Stephen Covey says that there is one clear sign of win-win, and that's winning by helping others. I do that, and I'll keep doing it. Writing for a career is a great win-win way to go. I love writing, so I win. You learn when you read; that makes it win-win.

Why does win-win work so easily in writing? It works because the relationship is very distant, very open. If someone reads this article and doesn't like it, no harm, no foul, they just move on.

Win-win is much harder if we depend on each other. Say we are writing a book together. If we have different expertise that the book needs, neither one of us can do it alone. The book can be great, but only if we are each independent (able to produce good work), and we listen to each other, and everything clicks. In fact, it takes two people, each one of whom is living all Seven Habits, to make a win-win relationship work. And that is very rare.

And if I find people who work like that, I'll work with them, for sure!

And the first practical step of winning by helping others is Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


afs on May 12, 2019:

i want an argument on this 'think win win attitude prevents negativity' anybody who can oppose this statement ..with some facts ..plz let me know.

babe592 on March 18, 2019:

Awesome! Thanks, very helpful.

Camya on September 16, 2016:

A very good read

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on May 31, 2013:

Thanks Teen Voice. Keep reading - I've got two more hubs on win-win success.

DFW TEEN VOICE from Richardson, Texas on May 31, 2013:

Love your subject matter and you gave a better understanding to the topic!Much Success!

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on March 31, 2013:

Thanks, Apurv! What did you like about this article?

Apurv on March 31, 2013:


Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 27, 2012:

That's great, SDaood! Have you ever followed Stephen Covey's recommendation and taught it to someone else? Every time I teach a 7 Habits class or coach a client through 7 Habits, I get better and better at it myself!

sdaood from Michigan on September 26, 2012:

I personally have committed myself to reading this book once annually! love it!

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 25, 2012:

Thanks, VisionAndFocus. In the coaching profession, we see the ability to learn from the mistakes and successes of others as openness (to new ideas and the experience of others) and willingness (to try something different, instead of banging our heads against the wall in the same old way, getting the same old headache).

In traditional Zen training, though, students must do their best to the point of deep frustration before the teacher suggests and alternative. It is held that the students own efforts to bear pain and develop concentration are more important than finding the right answer.

Covey says that, in North America, we value independence too much, and this reduces our abilities to learn from others and work with others. As he sees it, this is the biggest barrier to win-win.

visionandfocus from North York, Canada on September 25, 2012:

Oh yes, I love to learn vicariously! Saves me a lot of angst and anguish. lol But from observing my nephews and nieces, I believe that some kids simply do not have the capacity to learn anything unless it's personal with a capital P. They simply have to go through the pain, otherwise it's not real for them. They just don't believe anything they hear and are told. I feel for them, but we all learn differently, and we have to respect that.

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 24, 2012:

Yes. The mistakes people make are never new. Some old sinner (pardon the term) made the mistake and learned the lesson centuries ago. But most of us seem to need to learn from our own experience, rather than learn from history and the stories of others. I prefer to watch, become aware, remain aware, and get it done right the first time. It's less painful!

I mean that in terms of mistakes, but not in terms of creative living and art. As we move forward in growth and creativity, mistakes and failures are an essential part of the process. I'm still learning to accept that.

visionandfocus from North York, Canada on September 21, 2012:

It is very telling that the last point on the Declaration of the Peace People is that tragedies are not just a bad memory but "a continuing warning". So many of us close out eyes to major mistakes, as if denial would negate them. But unless we learn from them, we cannot move forward. Yes, we need to let go, as you say, but only after we've learned the lesson. As they say, "Lest we forget".

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 26, 2012:

And letting to is the key to freedom, Melovy! (The Buddha taught me that.) Your story of the aborigines makes it clear how win-lose is a cultural idea, and actually taught to children through games. Among some Native American tribes, the strongest boys are taught that it is shameful to win all the time.

There is a whole field of cooperative games, where children learn to win if everyone wins. My favorite is volleyball where the rotation on change of serve is under the net, so, by the time the game is played, everyone has been on both teams. There can be no victory, except one play at a time. We learn to do our best and let go; and it's so simple. And experience shows that children playing these games for just a few weeks become more helpful and cooperative everywhere.

Yvonne Spence from UK on July 26, 2012:

A very interesting read, especially as I have pondered this often.

I found your explanation of the football players' perspectives very interesting, because I've wondered about this often with sports. I once read that when some English people introduced football to Australian Aborigines the Aborigines didn't understand the rules of win-lose at all. They thought the game should go on until both teams had the same score!

I was in business many years ago and definitely had a lose-win mentality, which I have been doing my best to shed over the years. I agree with you that awareness is the key to letting go.