Ethics and integrity play a key role in sport (and business), but how far do we blur the boundaries when we practise sportsmanship and gamesmanship?  Years of sacrifice, training or indeed delivering exceptional business results should be rewarded – medals and trophies recognise the achievement, money underpins and justifies the behaviour.  In terms of performance management, just how prepared are we to bend the rules to succeed and reward success – to ensure that talent is not lost and to have the opportunity to win within our grasp?

This article explores the subtle differences between ‘Sportsmanship’ and ‘Gamesmanship’ in the sport and business world.  Should businesses aim to win at all costs?

  • Sportsmanship is about personal honour, developing respect and trust between competitors, it’s not about simply winning but the satisfaction of having given ones best.
  • Gamesmanship is the technique or practice of manipulating people or events so as to gain an advantage or outwit one’s opponents or competitors in order to succeed.


The desire to win; to reward successful achievement can drive individuals to ignore their moral compass, suspend their integrity and ethics, particularly when the stakes are high.  Some would say that gamesmanship is less ‘ethical’ than sportsmanship as the key tenants are:

  • Winning is everything
  • It’s only cheating if you get caught
  • It’s the referees job to catch wrongdoing and athletes and coaches have no inherent responsibility to follow the rules


The ends always justify the means.

Examples of which are:

  • Undertaking personal fouls to gain an advantage
  • Faking a foul or injury
  • Taunting or intimidating an opponent
  • The use of performance – enhancing behaviour
  • A coach lying about an athlete’s performance.



“How prepared are we to bend the rules to succeed and reward success – to ensure that talent is not lost and to have the opportunity to win?”



Taking gamesmanship to the next level; NASCAR the American stock car racing drivers have an unwritten rule “If you aren’t cheating’ you aren’t competing1 and consequently not winning.  Sportsmen and women compete to win, ethical losers are just that – losers.

Those who excel at the golden rule – ‘the rule of reciprocity’ may gain the respect of their opponent and lose the game.  On this the American football coach Vince Lombardi once observed, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser2.

In a recent ‘Today’ programme covering the IAAF drug scandal, elite UK athletes were asked whether they would ‘take a pill if it enhanced their performance to winning levels’.  It might surprise you, but 50% said they would –  even if there were health effects.  The UK’s wealth management industry’s ultimate aim was (arguably) to maximise profits, ‘thus the compensation mechanisms were designed to link performance and pay resulting in giving financial professionals the incentive to behave like unprincipled salesmen.’  3

When a team or a business manager uses questionable tactics to create an advantage is this using all opportunities, gamesmanship or is it cheating?


Reward and Retain your Best Talent (at all costs?)

From a business context, surely it is right to want to offer employees an advantage over competitors and indeed colleagues – after all competition drives performance and delivers results?  For example, the reward systems used by financial institutions (as above) may have changed, however the underlying theme remains the same: reward and retain your best talent, if you don’t, someone else will find an approach. Financial Service institutions are often blamed for having unethical practices but these systems are evident in many other sectors – after all, it’s just gamesmanship?

Let’s illustrate some examples of gamesmanship in business:

  • An individual ‘forward billing’ for work not yet undertaken in order to achieve bonus pay-out
  • Metrics are manipulated to avoid the attention of superior managers or bodies
  • Metrics are manipulated because people feel the measures used are inappropriate or unjust
  • The line manager revising performance scores to overcome a forced distribution curve
  • Making performance look worse than it is to argue for increased resources
  • Making performance look better than it is where income is based on activity or outcomes.

On a lighter note, but arguably no less gaming the system:  In a computer sciences course at John Hopkins University, the grading curve was set by giving the highest score on the final an A and then adjusting the scores accordingly.  Students calculated that if they all boycotted the final exam, then the highest score would be a zero, and so everyone would get an A.  They attended the exam, but refused to complete the paper and consequently all got an A grade.

Those who bend or ignore the rules are often the first to justify their actions as a matter of fairness.  If they believe they have some natural disadvantage in the market place or sports field and by enhancing their performance or finding ways to circumnavigate restrictive rules, they’re simply levelling the playing field.


From a business context, surely it is right to want to offer employees an advantage over competitors and indeed colleagues – after all competition drives performance and delivers results?


Gaming the System

In sport, we build and introduce systems and processes to ensure a high degree of consistency, fairness and transparency; be that goal line technology, instant replay or biological passports.  In the business world, we can apply the ‘ten tests’ which includes testing for gaming, i.e. ‘will measures encourage any undesirable behaviours?’ and consistency ‘is performance consistent whenever or whoever measures?’4. However situations arise where these ‘constraints’ work against us or indeed we seek or need to game the system.  Performance and reward systems offer rigour and objectivity, however, ‘exceptions, special cases’ apply, consequently performance ratings are negotiated or manipulated – otherwise we risk losing valuable talented individuals who deliver business success.  So what can drive us to game the system?

If we even believe the other person might cheat or seek an advantage, we’re more likely to do the same.  We get this ‘everybody else is doing it’ mentality, and think ‘this gives me the recourse to sort of balance things”, Schweitzer says 5.

Take the case of Lance Armstrong, he was convinced that his competitors were taking performance enhancing products and consequently did the same in order to be competitive – very successfully as it happens.  Many of his racing peers have now been found out and are similarly banned from competition – therefore he was  right to level the playing field wasn’t he?  After all, he didn’t just want to be a sportsman.  He wanted to win.


Playing Within the Rules

Monetary incentives do result in extremes of behaviour be that by manager or employee. Whilst there is evidence of wrong doing and miss-selling associated with reward and performance mechanisms, almost any link between performance and pay could lead to ethical issues.

So, in the world of work, are we diminishing our chances to recruit, retain and reward the best talent?  Will organisations fail to succeed if we try to enforce individuals to play within both the letter and spirit of the rules?

Arguably measures can be used in order to create an environment where integrity and ethical behaviour is seen to be valued. Measures could be constructed so as not to unintentionally incentivise individuals (which counts against integrity), also such measures could counterbalance the commercial pressures that are often associated with reward mechanisms.  What is valued by the organisation?  Simply profit at all costs or more responsible, sustainable and collaborative forms of behaviour?

However, are we being inconsistent? On the one hand we preach ethics and value ‘integrity’ yet on the other we teach that gamesmanship is just part of the game and is an acceptable way to gain competitive business advantage.

Look at the reward system of any institution and perhaps this will give us an insight as to where they place their values.  Is it ethical or is it gamesmanship or a bit of both?  Would it not be prudent, as Mark Goodridge points out, to look a little more closely at the drivers of integrity in the organisation?


1.  Junior Johnson, NASCAR driver
2.  Vince Lombardi – American football coach
3.  “Change rewards culture to fix the integrity minefield” – John Authers
4.  “Survival of the Fittest: measuring performance in a changing business environment” (Mike Kennerley & Andy Neely, 2003)
5.  “Friend & Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both” Maurice Schweitzer & Adam Galinsky (2015