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Compromise Meets Don Quixote

There seems to be an enduring belief that the only way to achieve consensus is compromise, that problem solving and perpetual movement in a win-win universe is the only way to move ahead. This orientation often associated in academia with the non-zero sum game or Getting to Yes implies a certain incrementalism. A certain tactical ability to make adjustments and move ahead a few steps at a time while every so often taking a few steps backwards always in the hope that you, in some circumvented way, will reach your goal.

The problem of course is that often, in the pursuit of compromise and consensus, the original goal, the original intent, is lost and you are dismissed as a waffling figurehead, expeditious, uncommitted, and, at worst, cast off as a traitor.

Compromise and consensus is at one end of the continuum on the other end there is the notion of the hero charging into windmills living in the world of win-lose,  seeing only victory, and running full steam ahead into zero-sum negotiations.

This world of aspirations, dreams, and visions, is the same world that gets us elected, gets us on the pedestal, and keeps us on the podium. This is the world that results in high turnout, this is the world of impassioned commitment, and this is the world that turns many away from the pragmatism of one candidate to the ideology of another.

So here’s the conundrum: you get elected because of your vision and now you have to govern with the tactical skills of execution.  At some point along the line someone will feel that you betrayed your original intent, the original collected vision. How do you deal with this?

Leadership lesson number one that we can learn from the last two years of the Obama administration is simple: be tactical when everyone is still overwhelmed by your vision, achieve compromise when everyone still fears your charisma, execute while people still over estimate your base.

If you begin to compromise your vision because it’s obvious you’ve lost momentum than the chipping away at your goals and reputation begins. Slowly but surely your opponents will discuss your weaknesses and your supporters will lament your fickleness. You may celebrate your pragmatism, but it may be too late. So, lesson number one: compromise early, while you’re still sitting on Rocinante.

Picture credit: A journey around my skull

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What Ever Happened to Bargaining?

When I was in graduate school a very long time ago–I took a number of courses in bargaining theory. Later on, I had the privilege of co-authoring a book with Edward Lawler on, essentially what we was known as, “Bargaining Theory.”

In those days, ‘bargaining’ was the operative word and the word ‘negotiate’ didn’t play a prominent role in academic literature.

It seems ever since Fisher and Ury wrote “Getting to Yes” the word ‘bargaining’, or at least the noting of bargaining, has disappeared–out-casted and thrown under the shadow of the everybody-wins concept of “negotiation.”

The distinction between bargaining and negotiation is more than a character distinction–instead a subtle, even nuanced, strategic mindset lies between the two approaches.

The Difference Between Negotiation & Bargaining:

When I stand in front of a group of American students the notion of bargaining is uncomfortable. Bring up ‘bargaining’ and they look at me like I’m coming from some ethnic part of the universe where bazaars dominate, haggling is prominent, and power is essential. Bargaining, in their eyes, looks like a back alley dance–performed exclusively by shifty-eyed types.

On the other hand, when I discuss some of the concepts endemic to negotiation in foreign classrooms–I am met with equal confusion and the same awkward seat shifting. It’s as if I’m from a naive, New England-esque, alien planet called ‘Win-Win.’ Concepts, crucial to negotiations, like problem solving cooperatives and non-confrontational games are very peculiar to someone used to the idea of bargaining.