A former client recently asked me to have dinner with him to catch up and discuss a few things. Unemployed now, he told me that the company he had been CEO of was sold to another firm. While this happens every day, he went on to say that the acquiring firm had been the proverbial minnow and swallowed his company, the whale, which was nine times larger.

The story got worse when he said that the price paid was significantly below his company's valuation from four years prior. Lastly, all but one of the original management team had been let go.

Listening to this story, I was not really surprised and thought about our last few conversations where I urged him to transform the organization from top to bottom. His business suffered from slowing growth, systemic service problems, and aggressive and new competitors.

However, he seemed unable or unwilling to alter his course. He was worried about changing too much and possibly making things worse. So, he chose to stay the course. Now, here he was having dinner with me, losing his company and unemployed. How does this kind of situation happen?

Here are 5 tips to prevent this from happening to you.

Know When To Rock The Boat

This senior executive is a perfect example of a person who has the 'Playing Not to Lose Syndrome.' Instead of striving to win and thrive in business, he was merely hoping not to lose and make it through one more day. I have witnessed this aspect of disengagement for the 35 years I've been leading and advising companies.

Because of the way most organizations are run, the potential rewards people might receive for taking a risk are usually overshadowed by the potential consequences. In other words, the fear of losing trumps the desire to try to win.

Most executives and employees understand this equation all too well. You don't reach for the brass ring, you just make sure you don't fall off your horse.

Focus On A Goal To Success

It just seems to happen to people without them being fully aware. This psychological aversion to being fully engaged is insidious, almost like an invisible, flesh-eating virus. It thwarts innovation and progress. And even when everyone in the organization realizes that this has become the company-wide modus operandi, almost never does anyone do anything to change it.

Act Like a Leader -- Your Employees Are Watching Every Move You Make

Employees are affected by this behavior in both direct and indirect ways.

If a leader acts this way, it invariably will impact, affect and shape the behaviors of those who report to him or her. While no one admits to being ruled by this strategy, it clearly reveals their decisions and actions to all levels of employees.

Without being specifically told "not to rock the boat," the actions, decisions, and communication from their leaders clearly state that they should not seek new, innovative solutions. Even worse, they are discouraged from pointing out problems because leaders will then have to acknowledge these issues and make tough decisions to fix them.

Avoid Treading Water -- You'll Never Arrive At The Goal

The real problem with doing just enough to get by and no more is that, like a person treading water, it ultimately doesn't work. At some point, you must swim to shore, or you will drown.

People believe that if they keep their heads down, nothing will change. Yet they lose anyway and what they are trying so hard to protect gets blown up in the end. And yet, the human tendency is to hold tighter and tighter to the status quo as though it were a security blanket--not understanding that it's smothering them!

Be Aware Of This Behavior In Any Context You're In -- Not Just Business

Of course, the Playing Not to Lose Syndrome exists everywhere. People in politics, teachers, even scientists can suffer from this syndrome -- putting in just enough hours and effort to get by. They do a good job but not a great one. The truth is that most of us have been guilty of this mindset at some point in our lives.

If there is one thing I am completely convinced of, however, is that it is human nature to want to excel. Employees usually have great ideas to fix problems or to create solutions for customers, but unfortunately, they're never asked. Managers could innovate if they did not have their heads down, just trying to get through to the end of the day.

While leaders often feel that playing it safe is the better and less risky approach, life teaches us that it is not. The railroads, Blockbuster, Kodak are testaments to this failed approach - more recently it is the taxi industry not adapting and allowing Uber to take over.

As leaders, it is our job to get people back in the game, where they can play to win.

Published on: Jun 12, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.