Are you playing Jenga with your team?

Jenga has a time and place – like when you are trying to frustrate kids. Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Jenga has a time and place – like when you are trying to frustrate kids. Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

I love most games. I don’t love Jenga. As I reflect on that more, I realise that I love winning…or more accurately I love playing to win. I have lost enough in my life to realise that it’s part of the deal. Pursuing anything worthwhile increases the chances of failing. Typically, there is more value in failing at something worthwhile than winning at something with meaningful. Hence, trying to win serves us far more than focusing only on the outcome of winning.

Here is where Jenga comes in. Jenga is a game where you aim to avoid losing…

Jenga is not a game that you actually win.

It has similarities with so many leaders’ approaches.

Let’s imagine that every positive thing that a team member does is the equivalent of taking a block from the bottom and putting it on the top. It starts off relatively easy and low risk once you know what you are doing (like the core functions of many roles) then becomes increasingly difficult, stretching the skill level of the participants and requiring more attention as the risk of failure increases (like where a lot of the most value is added in many roles beyond the status quo). At some point, the tower is either going to come down or everyone is going to stop playing the game because they don’t want to lose. At some point, in spite of all of the great work, one false move and it’s back to square one.

No acknowledgement of the efforts to build the tower. Only a focus on the fact that an error was made. If you failed to avoid losing – you lose.

Many leaders, especially in their first role, fall into this sort of a trap. It’s easy to do. As humans, we experience a thing called loss aversion, which means that we experience losses more sharply than gains. So, we are drawn to mistakes. We are keen to avoid them and pay a disproportionate amount of attention to them when they happen. First time leaders are often keen to show their competence to their leaders and not appear to have errors be seen or feel like a mistake . So, this loss aversion can often see us ignore the good work of our team and focus only on the shortcomings.

It sees a disproportionate amount of time and attention being devoted to minor and insignificant errors – like the infamous TPS reports in Office Space

Being led like this means that teams are being sent a consistent message (intentionally or otherwise) that whenever there is ambiguity, it is more important to avoid mistakes than to do good work. They are best to play small and fall in line with process. At best, this is a way to maintain status quo. At worst, it’s a way to discourage any discretionary effort, innovation or creativity. Most teams need more of that and not less.

If you want your team to pursue something meaningful instead, it might be time to stop playing Jenga.

My questions for you to consider are:

  1. Are you encouraging your team to play to win or to avoid losing?

  2. How do you shift your approach to counter the experience of loss aversion?


I think many leaders and indeed organisations need to shift their behaviours and mindsets on this. In Brene Brown’s most recent linkedin post she talks about perfectionism not being the road to success – and what sits below this is avoiding loss (whether it is loss of a sense of feeling capable or being successful, a loss of getting it right or being seen as the expert, a loss of being perfect etc). Leaders think they should know it all and should always get it right, but if you ask leaders if, in the last 6 months, they have made a mistake or not known what to do, most leaders will say yes. So, its a good point you raise here Keegan and an opportunity for us all.

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