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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 creative decision the question is not, “What will restore peace in the team?”

The right question is, “What solution or idea will serve our constituency best?” The team should be willing to bear the internal conflict necessary to answer that question.

The best solution to a problem is rarely found by compromise. In fact, the opposite is true. The most transformative ideas are often the outliers; those ideas that at first elicit disbelief, resistance, and turbulence.

The best ideas don’t restore equilibrium, they often disturb it. Leaders who fear conflict suppress excellence by valuing superficial harmony above performance.

When leaders become habituated to using comprise to resolve conflict, they actively kill the ideas and creativity most likely to provide maximum benefit and value to those they serve.

These organizations limp along, avoiding tough questions, and providing little in the way of innovation. One day they are inevitably undone or over-taken by competitors who put excellence above comfort. They also experience brain-drain as the most talented and motivated staff eventually seek new, more dynamic organizations where their creativity can truly bloom.

The alternative to compromise is not the dictatorial imposition of ideas. Instead, aim for real collaboration that embraces creative conflict and is explicitly aimed at producing the best idea, not the most palatable one.

Care for that idea like a precious baby. Fight to keep it whole like the real mother in the story above.

True collaboration produces something greater than the sum of its parts; a new idea that neither party could have produced on their own. Until then, stay in ring. The fight isn’t over until that idea is ready.

For more advice on leading creative conflict, check out the Creative Strategies section of the blog and the Leading Conflict Store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.

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