Compromise Kills Excellence

Compromise is rarely the best resolution to an argument. Here’s an example.

King Solomon was renown for his wisdom among the Hebrew nation of antiquity. People came from far and wide to seek his counsel and resolve disputes.

One day, two women appeared before him. Each woman claimed to be the mother of the same child. Both women provided evidence of their supposed motherhood. However, Solomon was unable to determine who had the rightful claim based on the evidence alone.

So, he proposed a compromise. Since the evidence was inconclusive, Solomon suggested that that the baby be cut in half so that the women could share the child – equally.

One woman, anxious not to lose the argument before the king, agreed.

The other woman recoiled in horror and pleaded that the child be left unharmed. She offered to relinquish all claims to the child and let the other woman raise the baby.

In that moment, Solomon was certain who the real mother was. No true mother would sacrifice her child just to save face.

The real mother was willing to "lose" the argument to keep her baby unharmed. The child was given to this woman.

This is the origin of the common negotiation advice, “Never split the baby.”

The same dynamics play out when two colleagues disagree. Perhaps each has an idea, to which they are both strongly attached.

Or maybe there’s a simple power struggle underway. They’ve lost sight of the creative process. There’s nothing they each particularly hope to win, but neither wants to look like they’ve lost.

In teams that are attempting to do creative work, a leader might find themselves negotiating a web of both dynamics. There are multiple people arguing strongly for their particular ideas, while the group devolves into opposing camps. As each group hardens their creative bunker against the others, the thought of “losing” or capitulating to another camp becomes increasingly distasteful.

Collaboration becomes competition. What started as a quest for innovation, becomes a test of wills.

In the scenarios above, it is tempting to break the tension by suggesting a compromise – a negotiated middle in which each party gets just enough to save face, and not so much that anyone feels shamed. This is a mistake and a cop-out on the part of leaders.

Great ideas, small or large, never result from decisions driven by the need to help others save face or prevent conflict. Compromise might bring peace, but the price is mediocrity.

Everyone who leads an organization is ultimately charged with serving people outside of that organization. High-performing teams must keep the needs of those they serve at the center of every conflict, impasse, or group-dynamics boondoggle.

In a mere compromise everyone loses, especially those you serve.

When a team is struggling mightily over a creativ