In a telephone conversation this week, Dr. Gunia and I discussed the seductiveness of what he calls "the cult of compromise" - the intuitive belief that compromise is the ideal way to resolve conflict. In our previous newsletter we pointed out that compromise requires each party to give up something and inevitably leaves both dissatisfied. And the dissatisfaction makes the decision unstable and subject to frequent attempts to re-open the negotiation hoping to get a more favorable deal.
Why is compromise a "seductive" strategy?
First, it ends the conflict. Mary Parker Follett, pioneer management consultant in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior, tells the story of two sisters fighting over the one remaining orange. The mother simply cuts the orange in half, giving each girl half of what she wanted, leaving them both unhappy, but at least temporarily ending the argument. Rather like King Solomon suggesting to two women, each claiming to be the mother, that they cut the baby in half.
Second, it's obvious. Ever since elementary school we've known that the whole can be divided into two equal halves.
Third, it's easy. It doesn't require any special skill or knowledge or creative thinking.
Fourth, it's quick. No endless discussions, no tedious meetings. This makes compromise popular with those who "just want to get on with it."
Fifth, it's a defensive maneuver. We think, "Well, I'll get at least half, so I won't be taken advantage of." These are two very different ways of settling disagreements.
The seductiveness of easy, quick, obvious solutions keeps us from achieving the superior benefits of more challenging collaborative, integrative solutions.
A Better Way
The research is clear: Collaboration - the integration of the underlying interests of both parties - produces far superior results that are longer lasting and far more satisfying to constituents of both parties. In the example above of the two sisters and the orange, Follett suggests that if they had tried to understand each other's interests, they would have learned that one wanted the pulp for juice and the other wanted to grate the rind to put into a pastry. Instead of both giving up half of what they wanted, each could have had all she desired.
If collaboration works, why don't we try it?
Our observation over the years has been that even after learning about collaborative strategies for solving difficult problems, many business leaders still do not use them. Dr. Gunia teaches classes in negotiation and conflict resolution to Executive MBA students at Johns Hopkins. I asked him what reasons are given by his students - who are currently leaders in major corporations - for their reluctance to practice collaborative strategies to achieve integrative solutions.
"Irrationality is the number one reason they cite," Dr. Gunia said. "They say that these techniques are great if both parties are using them, but not if the other party is irrational."
It's rather startling that senior business leaders believe there is such a high level of irrationality among their colleagues. But even more revealing is that apparently many leaders see anyone who is strongly opposed to their view as "irrational," the implication being that "I am so confident in the rightness of my position that anyone disagreeing with me must be irrational." Dismissing the other party as "irrational" is a sure block to collaboration.
Dr. Gunia says that developing collaborative, integrative solutions requires "creativity, a propensity to trust, persistence, the ability to balance one's own interests with the interests of others, and the art of knowing when and how to promote the other's interests and our collective interests, as well as your own." Given the tendency to equate disagreement with irrationality, I'd add that successful negotiators need a dose of humility, too.
Other barriers to collaboration
An article in last week's Bloomberg Businessweek by Peter Coy, titled "The Cliff Isn't the Problem," illustrates one of the major barriers to developing integrative solutions. Coy suggests that short-term thinking is causing Congress to focus on quick fixes (remember the seductiveness of quick/simple/obvious). He argues that "The solution is to figure out what problems need solving on which time scale." His point is supported by research by the Harvard Negotiation Project: that identifying multiple facets and underlying interests - especially timing - helps reveal a range of priorities, and thus increases possibilities for each side to get their most important needs met.
Skilled negotiators know that it's not always about price. They know that finding out what's important to each side opens up possibilities for collaborating on such facets as quality of materials, relations with suppliers, terms and timing of payment, delivery mode and date, resources allocated - any one of which could cause price to be less important in the deal. Seeing the issue merely as an orange to be divided prevents us from seeing all the negotiable elements of the deal. As we said in our previous newsletter, digging in on intractable positions negates your ability to achieve high quality, lasting, satisfying solutions.
Sometimes the process itself is the barrier
It's time to state the obvious: Achieving collaborative solutions to complex problems requires people to talk to each other. Sometimes a lot of talk is required. And the talk needs to be well orchestrated, often by a neutral skilled facilitator. (We've successfully played that role with elected officials as well as with private sector leaders.)
The number one rule is inquiry before advocacy - that is, asking questions to understand perspectives and interests and to explore options BEFORE advocating, evaluating, or debating alternative solutions.
Most leaders in business as well as in public office tend to be action-oriented problem-solvers, the get-on-with-it-and-get-it-done types. They get impatient with a process that requires a lot of talking and even worse, a lot of non-judgmental listening. Yet that's what it takes.
Inquiry first requires that the parties patiently and persistently stay in exploring mode, asking questions, listening, clarifying, empathizing, restating to be sure all parties understand all the perspectives and underlying interests. Dr. Gunia recommends asking "Why?" Why is that important to you? (See sidebar for other useful questions.) Stephen Covey urged, "Seek first to understand." Integrative solutions cannot be achieved without this foundation of exploring perspectives and identifying multiple alternatives.
The diagram below illustrates why inquiry first is frustrating to problem solvers: the conversation continues to diverge, making participants feel a solution is farther and farther away. Often they complain that the discussion is getting off track, wasting time, especially when a simple/quick/obvious solution (compromise) is seductively close.
Advocacy second means that the time for debate will come, and if the inquiry dialogue is well handled, participants will find themselves converging on a collaborative solution rather quickly. The diagram appears to show the two parts of the discussion equal in time, but the truth is that if inquiry/dialogue is done well, the debate/advocacy goes more quickly.
Organizational culture may be a barrier
We've observed situations where the organizational culture itself discouraged the use of collaborative approaches in favor of less effective approaches. Years ago we frequently consulted at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which was known for its intense, highly competitive culture. High performing leaders and professionals were pitted against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest arena incompatible with collaboration. (DEC was acquired in 1998 by Compaq, which subsequently merged with Hewlett-Packard in 2002. Some parts of DEC were sold to Intel... so DEC is no more.) We've also consulted with numerous local governments, parts of the Federal government, and several defense contractors, some of whom tend to have a hierarchical structure and a command-and-control culture which encourages domination and compromise, and discourages collaborative approaches.
To what degree does your organizational culture support the use of collaborative, integrative approaches to solving difficult problems? Are individuals and groups expected, or even encouraged, to "seek first to understand," to take the time to get all perspectives on the table and develop multiple options before trying to decide on a solution?
Reciprocity isn't necessary
There's no question that integrative solutions are easier if both parties are committed to a collaborative approach. But research shows that reciprocity isn't a requirement. In fact, evidence points to the fact that trust is a self-fulfilling process. Dr. Gunia claims that if you behave in a trusting manner, the other party tends to behave more trustingly. If you invest time and energy in asking questions to understand the other party's underlying interests, they will tend to try to understand yours. Unless you have objective evidence that the other party is trying to do you harm, the best rule to follow is: "Assume positive intent."
For more information on developing a culture of collaboration, click here, or here, or contact us at 704.892.5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org, or at our website www.alexanderhancock.com