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Cooperation vs. Compromise: How High Performers Handle High Stakes Conversations

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

When opposing ideas clash, it’s tempting to believe that comprise is the answer. But that’s a mistake.  High performing individuals and organizations recognize, there’s a big difference between compromise and cooperation. Compromise waters down your ideas, cooperation makes your ideas better.

In his address to the nation, Joe Biden said, “I believe that is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to COOPERATE.”  Yet multiple news sources translated his call for cooperation into a mandate for compromise.  To use these terms interchangeably is a recipe for failure. Here’s why:

Compromise means giving something up. Over time this will erode trust, and it chips away at your best thinking. The result is mediocrity at best.  Cooperation is a different ballgame. It’s about being open to the possibility of creating something bigger and better, with someone who on the surface may look like an adversary.

As someone who has studied conflict for over a decade and authored one of the seminal books on the topic, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small, here’s what I know to be true: If you enter a negotiation assuming that you are going to have to compromise, you protect your flank. A compromise mindset puts you in a defensive posture and keeps you thinking small.

There are three techniques top performers use in high stakes conversations to avoid the compromise trap and seek higher cooperation instead:

Loosen your grip on your solution

Every night at Disney Parks around the world Tinker Bell kicks off the fireworks show by flying down to light the top of the castle. It’s a high wire act (literally) that could potentially pit two of Disney’s key values – Safety and Show – against each other.  If the Safety team had their way, their solution would likely be Tinker Bell standing on solid ground, waving a flashlight.  While the Show team would probably love to send Tink flying miles above the park fueled by an invisible jet park, holding a lit firework in her hand. Yet they don’t do either of these things. Instead of doubling down on rigid solutions, the safety and show teams collaborate.

Neither team compromises on their core priority, they collaborate to form a solution that addresses both. Night after night, Tinker Bell flies safely down on a seemingly invisible wire, lights the castle, and starts the fireworks. Loosening the tether to a single side solution is what enables two seemingly conflicting agendas to create the magic.

You can demonstrate this yourself by starting conversations, saying, Let’s put our tactical solutions on pause for a moment, what are the bigger outcomes we want to achieve?

Step into uncertainty, for a moment

A tech client of ours wanted to establish more collaborative relationships with their clients.  When we assessed their teams, we found that the high performers – defined as those who created buy-in on both sides and implemented higher-value solutions – were the people who could tolerate seemingly ambiguous conversations. As one senior leader observed, “The top performers are confident they can ultimately find a solution. That enables them to explore more creative alternatives.”

In a high stakes conversation, it’s tempting to want to lock down answers quickly. Yet our assessment revealed that even an additional 15 minutes spent exploring multiple alternatives led to better outcomes. Top performers don’t jump to solutions too quickly; their willingness and ability to temporarily sit with uncertainty ultimately strengthens collaboration. Even if only one side exhibits this trait, it unlocks more creativity.

Ask the person on the other side of the table if the two of you can spend the first part of the conversation exploring the subject itself without committing to particular ideas.

Find a shared purpose

When John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, they had no way of knowing that their shared purpose, yet differing ideologies would shape our nation for centuries to come.  While they were far from perfect, Jefferson owned slaves and neither considered women worthy of voting, their collaboration created the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote the document, and Adams along with Benjamin Franklin edited it.

Much has been written about Adams’ and Jefferson’s conflicts; many consider Adams the first conservative and Jefferson the first liberal. Less obvious, though, is how their differing perspectives shaped a philosophy more powerful than either could have accomplished alone.

Innovation requires creative tension. In business, the finance, marketing, sales, and HR departments have (seemingly) competing priorities. In families, the push-pull of spend vs save can create conflicts. Yet in all of these circumstances, when differing perspectives collaborate in the service of a larger shared purpose, the creative tension works for the institution, rather than against it.

Adams and Jefferson shared a belief that democracy was better than aristocracy, and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were noble causes worth fighting for.  High performers know, arguing about how to solve problems doesn’t mean that you don’t care; it means that you do care, deeply.

If you’re having trouble finding a shared purpose, ask the other person why their solution is important to them. Questions like, What impact do you want to have on the people we serve? will help them (and you) articulate a larger purpose.

Compromise and collaboration are two entirely different practices. Compromise gives everyone less of what they really want. Collaboration builds trust and creates solutions bigger than either side could develop on their own. Using the above techniques in high stakes conversations will jump-start collaboration in your organization, be it a family, business, or nation.