The Power of Positive-Sum Thinking

By Brett Beasley

We can tell a better story about business. First, we need to recognize how cooperation—and not greed—makes business tick.


With books on Enron and the global financial crisis, Bethany McLean has told some of the biggest stories about businesses and their leaders behaving badly. Nevertheless, McLean isn't a skeptic. She believes in business's power to do good. "There are amazing stories," she says, "of how business done right has made the world a better place."

News stories of business done right, however, are few and far between. They tend to focus on scandals and bad actors even though researchers point out that we need "more constructive journalism." Business ethics courses and trainings often follow suit. They give the spotlight to negative case studies and "cautionary tales," even though we need not just negative examples to avoid but positive examples that can inspire us.

Honorable Business

Notre Dame philosopher James Otteson says we need something more fundamental as well: We need to know what we mean by "business done right."

Otteson is the John T. Ryan professor of business ethics at Mendoza College of Business, and his most recent book presents a vision of the kind of business we should be proud of. For Otteson, business activity is good at its core—but not because he agrees with fictional Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko that "greed is good." Rather, for Otteson, "creating value for others" is what business is all about. It is what he calls "honorable business."

Otteson explains that the inner logic of honorable business is "win-win" thinking—or "positive-sum" thinking, to use the term preferred by economists. The engine of "dishonorable business," on the other hand, is "zero-sum" or "win-lose" thinking. Zero-sum situations are all around us. Many of the sports we watch provide an example: A win for one team is usually synonymous with a loss for the other team. One or the other can emerge victorious. Not both.

Otteson explains, "If I steal your iPhone from you, certainly I benefit, but at your expense. 'Plus one iPhone for me, 'minus one iPhone' for you: +1 plus -1 equals zero. Hence the term 'zero-sum."

Fortunately, Otteson points out, "the vast majority of transactions" in business have positive sum possibilities:

"you go into Starbucks and order a double pumpkin spice mocha latte; the barista says that will be $5. You hand over the $5; the barista hands over your drink. Now, which of you benefited from that exchange? Answer: you both did!"

What Honorable Business Does

Honorable business creates value—in more ways than one. First, honorable business creates monetary value. It makes both individuals and society more prosperous. And it also creates "moral value.” It can "generate better relations among people." Because honorable business encourages us to consider others’ interests and treat them as peers with dignity, Otteson argues that it can even work against some of our worst instincts, such as "tribalism" and “distrust of strangers."

Put It In Practice

Adopt a win-win strategy.

Otteson writes that businesspeople should constantly ask, "Would this create value for both of us?" He explains that "If the answer is no, then one should not do it, even if one could oneself benefit; if the answer is yes, then it is a possibility one should explore."

Support honorableness with honesty.

For Otteson, one of the best tests of honorable business is whether others voluntarily agree to cooperate with us. That means we must respect another person's right to opt out and to know the truth. "If I think there is a good chance the person would not agree with what I am proposing if that person knew what I know," Otteson writes, "then that is a red flag that should cause me to reconsider."

Look for the positive stories—and live one.

Otteson suggests that we shouldn't just take honorable business seriously; we should also take it personally. We can make it part of our identity by living it out. Otteson recommends that each business person develop "a proper business identity for herself" as well as "a code of ethics" founded on personal moral responsibility.

By unleashing the power of positive-sum thinking, we’ll prove that business is not a necessary evil to tolerate; it is a necessary good to practice and perfect.

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