The EU referendum offered voters a simple binary decision, ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, an either/or answer to a hugely complex question. Neither was going to solve the problems we face in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and either way a significant portion of the population were going to be dissatisfied with the answer. What was lacking was a shared exploration of how we get the best out of our relationship with Europe, which includes aspects of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’, and a clear understanding of the broader needs of the British electorate in all its many guises. In the absence of shared conversation and genuine dialogue the best story won, just.
Business leaders face similar challenges, when either/or masks more complicated and/both solutions, and when factional interests get in the way of shared needs. Should they improve existing products, services and methods incrementally or invent radically new products based on new business models. Should they maximise profits for shareholders or generate wider benefits for investors, employees, customers and communities. Should they pursue the company’s social mission or focus on the bottom line.
Ideally, they should do both, but typically the answer is to choose one option over the other (or at least prioritise one over the other), or to seek the middle ground and find an acceptable compromise. Yet there is an alternative. That is for leaders and managers to shift from an ‘either/or’ to a ‘both/and’ mind-set, by recognising and nurturing the aims of competing constituencies and strategies while finding ways to unite them.
Mary Parker Follett, social worker, management consultant, and pioneer of organizational theory and behaviour, suggested three ways to respond to conflict: Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other, which may work in the short term but can be counterproductive in the long run, with one side remaining disgruntled. Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of agreement and a reduction in friction, but again this is far from ideal as it can leave all parties dissatisfied, each having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option advocated by Follett, means creatively incorporating the parties’ fundamental needs and interests into the solution. As she observed:
“…when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything.”
She recognised that integrative bargaining is not always a viable option and there are a lot of obstacles in the way of cooperative negotiation: on the one hand, a natural distaste for conflict, and on the other, a zero-sum mentality. Those caveats aside, however, the method to integrative bargaining is based upon bringing real differences out into the open. Taking the example of psychology, Follett wrote:
“The psychiatrist tells his patient that he cannot help him unless he is honest in wanting his conflict to end. The “uncovering” which every book on psychology has rubbed into us from some years now as a process of the utmost importance for solving the conflicts, which the individual has within himself, is equally important for the relations between groups, classes, races, and nations. In business, the employer, in dealing either with his associates or his employees, has to get underneath all the camouflage, has to find the real demand as against the demand put forward, distinguish declared motive from real motive, alleged cause from real cause, and to remember that sometimes the underlying motive is deliberately concealed and that sometimes it exists unconsciously. The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open….”
This type of “uncovering”, explained Follett, often leads to a “revaluation” of one’s desires and interests. In other words, uncovering leads people to move from position to interest-based thinking and negotiation.
The first step is to illuminate and differentiate between people’s needs, interests and strategies. We all have the same basic needs (think of Maslow’s hierarchy for instance), but we have differing interests arising from those needs, and choose different strategies to meet those interests and needs. Conflicts arise when the strategies we choose to achieve our interests and needs stand in opposition to the strategies of others. We end up fighting over strategies and positions instead of looking more broadly for effective ways to meet our needs. For example, a need for safety and a desire (interest) to live in a safe neighbourhood can lead to two contradictory, ‘either/or’ strategies: gun ownership should be unrestricted or gun ownership should be restricted.
There are a variety of ways to meet needs and interests, but a focus on the strategy narrows the range of solutions. It is easier to consider alternative strategies when needs and interests have been heard and named. In seeking solutions to a seemingly either/or issue, start by helping the people who are in conflict to get a full a full picture of what is important to each of them. This is the beginning of dialogue, formed by the two words ‘dia’ and ‘logos’, which can be literally interpreted as the two way exchange of meaning. It is the foundation of truly meaningful conversations that get beyond either/or and explore the possibilities for and/both.