Why I'm Conflicted about Conflict
Louis Mobley, my mentor and the founder of the IBM Executive School, considered optimizing between conflicting value systems critical to good decision making. One of the most difficult challenges every great leader must face is optimizing between win/lose and win/win approaches to problem solving.
A friend recently sent me this YouTube video on conflict resolution, and while neither she nor I can recommend it, it did spark some thinking, which is never a bad thing even if its critical thinking.
What bothers me about this video is the implicit premise, so prevalent today, that all conflict between human beings is a bad thing: that every difference of opinion can and should be negotiated in the cooperative spirit of win/win.
Either/Or is one of the philosopher Kierkegaard’s most famous works, and he wrote it as a counter balance to Hegel’s both/and solution to every philosophical, moral, and existential problem. A mentor of mine once told me he was going to write a book some day called Either/Or and Both/And , and if he ever gets around to it, I’ll snap up the first copy.
In a world full of so much senseless and mutually destructive conflict, we often forget that without conflict all our favorite stories such as Shakespeare’s plays would disappear. Even comedy depends on the conflicts created by humorous misunderstandings. And where would romance be without the middle term where “boy loses girl” before ultimately winning his prize? Our lovers may resolve their own differences through win/win, but our hero must either vanquish his rivals to their dismay or not. The thrill of his victory as well as ours depends on the agony of his rival’s defeat
As an on air promo for the TV series Law and Order reminds us, the essence of drama is conflict, and I for one would be bored silly by a world entirely free of drama. While conflict is too often destructive, it is also essential to creativity, as the emergent term “creative destruction” so aptly illustrates.
Our fascination with drama sometimes demands clear cut winners as well as losers. I doubt if our football stadiums would teem with fans if the captains of the two teams decided to negotiate the final score in the spirit of win/win. I remember when football and hockey games could end in a tie. Ultimately the sense of kissing your sister overwhelmed this example of everyone gets a trophy and tie breakers were instituted.
Win/win and win/lose both have their place in business as well. In my article for Forbes.com, Business Secrets of the Trappists, I introduce the concept of a Corporate Statesman; a concept that guided me to win/win success in a company riven by corporate infighting. However, I could also cite many examples amicable to my management philosophy of Service and Selflessness where customers benefitted from all the win/lose competition breathing down my neck. Even the monks of Mepkin Abbey live in an either/or marketplace where a purchase decision to buy a dozen of their eggs means one less for their competition.
We will often do things for the team that we would never do for ourselves, and as a long time sales executive I increasingly relied on cooperative sales incentives based on group performance rather than individual achievement. But at the end of the quarter we still either made our number or we didn’t. And failing to hit our number was never a trivial event to be rationalized away.
Albert Einstein said things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler. There is a time for every season, and sometimes a football team, romantic hero, sales rep, product, or company wins the prize or not. Knowing when to compete and when to cooperate is such an increasingly critical leadership skill that the word “coopetition” has been coined to describe it.
There is something clean cut, simple, and refreshing about win/lose and either/or which despite its many wonderful traits win/win and both/and cannot duplicate. Throughout history a war has been raging both on the ground and in the world of ideas between those who believe in peace and those who believe in war. A world at peace means that those of us who favor peace like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama must win this war in a clear, unambiguous, either/or way. After all we will either continue killing each other or not. Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for ambiguity or the middle ground of compromise.
What do I do?
Sit down and make a line down the middle of a paper. On one side, make a list of all the times you compete; on the other, make a list of all the times you cooperate. How much win/win, win/lose balance do you have?