I got asked a fantastic question after a keynote last week. The person came up to me, we’d been talking about conflict and positive conflict, and he said, “Is it okay to compromise?” Hmm, great question, and not a question I had heard, surprisingly.

It turns out that compromising is one of a variety of different conflict options we have, and it comes from the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict when we look at does the answer meet your needs and does it meet the other person’s needs?

We have collaboration, which is a situation where we meet their needs and our own needs, and we have a variety of others. But compromise is the interesting situation where we don’t meet their needs and we don’t fully meet our needs, but we kinda, sorta meet both of our needs enough. That’s compromise. And there are situations where that model suggests compromise is a good thing. But what I don’t like about compromise is the storyline.

Compromise is Good When it Optimizes a Situation

I don’t like the storyline of, “Well, this is not really what I wanted, but I guess it’s passable, bearable. I can survive, swallow it.”

Well, that is just not a very positive, productive conflict kind of mindset. So here was my question back to the person. I said, “I think it’s okay to compromise if that compromise can honestly be described as optimizing the situation.”

In this situation, it may be I come in and I know what I’m fighting for, and I know what I want, and I’ve come from my finance team, and I know what the best finance answer would be, but as I listen, you know, “That might be an amazing budgeting process that would give us great control and transparency,” but as I listen to folks from the field tell me about how their sales work and what that would add in terms of administration, I may think, “Oh, okay, well, maybe I could give up a few of the bells and whistles I was hoping for to improve usability.”

If we frame that as a compromise and then go back to the team in finance and say like, “Well, I gave in, I said they didn’t have to do this and this,” well, that’s not a very positive or healthy framing, and it’s not going to help us create a culture of productive conflict that we’re looking for.

If I go back and say, “Hey, I didn’t understand how this, this, and this were going to add a huge burden in terms of administration on the sales team, and I wasn’t really thinking about how every hour that they’re doing finance reporting is an hour they’re not selling a new product, so I really think the optimal answer was to make sure we have these things, but to let go of a few other things.” That’s optimizing.

Just Compromising to Get It Over With?

When I shared that example, the person who asked me the question said, “Well, the situation I’m thinking about is I’m negotiating for some money to do big projects. We’re looking at our capital budget for the year. And this one project that I wanted to do and was important to me, there just wasn’t a lot of funding for it. And I had to decide, do I compromise, give in on that project to protect the money for the next project coming up that I really, really, really care passionately about, and we need to make sure it happens?”

In that case, it’s not optimizing within a project, it’s actually thinking about how do we optimize across a suite of different projects. That’s what I asked him, “Can you say that doing less on the first project is still optimal in how you’re funding the whole portfolio of projects?” And he said, “Yeah, absolutely.”

Well, again, that’s optimizing. Optimizing, that’s a great story. Whether it’s within one decision where you’re optimizing for different perspectives and different stakeholders, or where you’re optimizing over a long-term of relationship, both of those are great.

But often when I hear about compromising, that’s not the story at all. Compromising is a cop out. It’s really trying to take the easy path:

I’m compromising because you just aren’t listening to me and I can’t be bothered anymore.

I’m compromising because I’m exhausted.

I’m compromising because you have more power than me, and I am not going to take you on.

I’m compromising because it’d be faster.

I’m compromising because I don’t have time to stop and have this debate effectively, or go find the evidence for why this perspective is important. So if I just let you have a bit, you’re going to feel like that’s enough, and we’ll be able to keep moving.

In that case, compromise to me is really saying, “Nope, I’m just going to sub-optimize the whole situation because I don’t have the time or the energy or the skills to fight for things that are worth fighting for.”

Ugh, that’s why I don’t love compromise. Ultimately, when you’re changing your perspective on the budgeting process because you’ve heard other people’s different perspectives or needs, or when you’re reallocating money from a first project, you are in some way compromising.

Compromising in Conflict

But if compromise is the word you’re using, and if compromise is the story you’re telling yourself, I just think it sets up a less healthy relationship with those conflicts than if we say, “Look, I’m in here fighting to optimize, and I know optimizing this doesn’t mean I’m going to get everything I initially wanted, but it does mean that we’re going to get to the best answer for our business or for our customer, and that is something absolutely worth fighting for.”

So this is just a new way of framing and thinking about something to help you embrace productive conflict. There are so many other key mindset changes and skills you need to learn to master productive conflict. Here’s another one you can check out.

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