Why Shouldn’t We Compromise?

Compromise.

It sounds so reasonable.

You give up a little bit, I give up a little bit, we both walk away with something. Hey, it’s better than nothing. Right? Who could possibly object to a little compromise to get over a rough patch, smooth over a disagreement, get things done, keep the wheels of commerce and industry turning? Conventional wisdom tells us everybody has to compromise from time to time; what’s the problem with keeping it in the organizational tool kit?

Well, for one thing, we also say somebody who’s vulnerable to blackmail is “compromised.”

Ouch.

Win-Win? Lose-Lose? Somewhere in Between? leadership training compromise

A compromise, at the outset, begins with a mutual promise: We agree, sitting down to solve this disagreement, that we are both going to lose something. The only question is what we are each willing to give up, and how much.

Compromise is a proactive contract for a lose-lose solution to a problem, right out of the gate.

That’s not an incentive to work together to solve the problem for the benefit of the enterprise; that’s an incentive for each party in the process to watch out for his or her own interests. Fiercely.

You can rest assured that during the process of reaching a compromise, each party will be eyeballing every point of negotiation to try to assess it for booby traps, counting concessions, keeping a mental tally of who’s currently ahead in the negotiations, and looking for ways to get more at the expense of the other. Compromise looks at conflict resolution as a zero-sum game; one party prevails at the expense of the other party. I win when you lose, and vice-versa.

The long-term effects of compromise are as predictable as they are destructive: Damaged trust, spirals of resentment, shutdowns in further communication, frustration, wariness, and vigilance against “being taken advantage of” in the future on both sides.

It’s no wonder one of the earliest stories in the Old Testament (and twenty or so other similar stories in world mythology) is a cautionary tale about the dangers of arbitrary compromise. Remember the “wisdom of Solomon?” Two women lived in the same house; both had babies; one had died. Each claimed to be the mother of the surviving child and asked Solomon, the king, to decide. He called for a sword and proposed giving each woman exactly one-half of the baby—surely a reasonable compromise—but of course, the woman who rejected this option and screamed “Give the living baby to her! She’s the mother!” was obviously the mother, and Solomon had found a better solution than a “fair” compromise.

Method III: A Better Solution

The horse-trading of compromise may get everybody a horse. But if all the horses were lame to begin with, it still won’t get the fields plowed.

Method III is a very different way of solving conflicts, and it starts with a completely different promise than compromise: We will do all we can to work together to solve this problem in a way that meets everybody’s needs.

Doesn’t that already sound better than “Prepare to give things up”? Rather than creating an atmosphere of suspicion, resentment, self-protection, and frustration, Method III is carefully structured to protect relationships for the sake of the enterprise’s continuing success.

  1. Define everyone’s needs. Rather than focusing first on competing solutions and fast-forwarding to potential concessions, Method III focuses first on the source of the conflict by stripping away distractors, extraneous issues, and getting down to the core issue: conflicting needs. Once these have been teased out (which may require the skilled application of Active Listening, I-Messages, and Shifting Gears), the rest of the process can proceed.
  2. Brainstorm solutions. Rather than approaching conflict resolution from a zero-sum mindset, in which solutions are scarce and one person’s gain must necessarily cause another’s loss, Method III assumes there is an abundance of possible solutions that can meet the needs of both parties. In this step, both parties simply come up with as many as they possibly can without judgment, selling, or evaluation, writing them down as they go.
  3. Evaluate the solutions. Mutual weighing and evaluating of each proposed solution happens at this step. Some may be modified; many will be eliminated because they don’t hold up to the hard light of reality. That’s fine. There will still be at least one or two solutions left.
  4. Decide on final solutions. Both parties agree, collaboratively and mutually, to select the solution that meets both parties’ needs.
  5. Implement solutions. As in any implementation plan, the parties agree on details: Who will do what? By when?
  6. Evaluate solutions. The parties also agree to circle back and check to make sure the solution is working within a specific timeframe; if it isn’t working, the work resumes at Step 1.

The process of solving conflicts through Method III, unlike using compromise, builds trust and respect in an organization, leading to greater cohesion and more functional work relationships. It’s a planned win-win rather than a planned lose-lose.

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