Americans can rest a little easier today reassured that people with genuine differences of opinion can find it in their hearts to compromise rather than allow their constituents to suffer from a dangerous game of brinksmanship. I’m referring, of course, to the resolution of the NFL lock-out. Our government may default on our financial obligations, but at least we’ll be able to watch athletes pass a football while our politicians pass a devalued buck. The new, dreaded “C” word of the day is “compromise.”
In his recent book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, Avishai Margolit, professor emeritus of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, refers to compromise as “an ambivalent concept.” On the one hand, we laud those who can preserve friendship or peace through cooperation. On the other hand, we revile those who too readily accede to intransigence. Compromise can be pragmatic and strategic, consider the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis; compromise can be cowardly and weak, consider much of the historic judgment against policies of appeasement during the rise of Nazi Germany. In an environment where words are chosen carefully to frame a perception in order to influence another’s thinking, how we conceptualize compromise matters.
While compromise is getting a lot of attention in the media these days, the daily act of people cooperating makes society and organizations possible. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a conflict resolution style assessment (TKI) that allows individuals to compare the degree to which you generally focuses on getting what you want versus the degree to which you generally focus on helping someone else get what they want. The TKI identifies five possible orientations to conflict: competition, collaboration, compromise, accommodation, and avoidance. Thomas and Kilmann believed that each of the five orientations are appropriate under certain circumstances and that one should choose an approach to conflict resolution based on the nature of the conflict, not the style that you find most comfortable. Thomas and Kilmann noted that compromise is the appropriate conflict resolution mode when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill, and when there is a deadline looming.
As stewards and students of organizational systems, we might be served by a systems thinking analysis of compromise. Margalit credits Albert Einstein with coining the phrase “beware of rotten compromises.” From a systems standpoint, what differentiates a productive compromise from a rotten compromise? Are we only able to judge the efficacy of the compromise from the vantage point of experiencing its consequences? The advantage of a systems analysis is that we can broaden our conversation about compromise beyond the trite calculus of what’s gained and what’s lost.