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The Importance of a Win/Win Orientation
by Stephen M. Dent


Vice President of Marketing, Becky, simply couldn't believe that Vice President of Engineering, Mark, would go behind her back to the CEO and convince her to re-allocate the $1.3 million they had set aside for a new segment-oriented marketing campaign. But he did, and the money was reassigned to fund a research project. This happened in August 2001, just after Becky and Mark had agreed to split $2.6 million in the 2002 budget between the new marketing campaign and a much-needed retrofit for the Engineering Services Office. It appeared that Becky and Mark, both company officers and members of the board, had a pretty large bone to pick.

"Now it's All Out War"

"This is the last time Mark is going to do this to me," Becky said. "Now it's all out war." Becky reverted to her highly honed fighter style, while Mark evaded her at all costs. The entire fourth quarter, which was economically weak to start with, was a disaster for their company.

Important strategic decisions were postponed as the leadership team tried to unravel the destructive dynamics around the boardroom table, and to keep morale from slipping further south. By the time the Christmas holidays arrived, the CEO proclaimed that she'd had enough. If Mark and Becky didn't get their act together, "all hell would break loose."

Does this sound familiar? Regardless of what we want to believe, variations of this story occur in leadership teams around the world every day, many times a day. The tragic results are lost productivity, poor morale, disillusionment and, worse, an erosion of trust that cascades throughout the entire organization.

When leadership sneezes, the organization truly does catch pneumonia.

While the scenario between Mark and Becky appears straightforward on the surface, in reality it's a complex interweaving - a tapestry demonstrating a lack of partnering skills. Using the Six Partnering Attributes to put this into context, the conflict began when Mark and Becky failed to disclose their needs to each other and offer two-way honest feedback. When agreement about the budget split was reached, it did not represent a win/win for Mark. Therefore, he felt compelled to go behind Becky's back to "renegotiate" the agreement with the CEO - effectively eroding trust between all three.

Difficult if not Impossible Transition to an Authentic Win/Win

To complicate matters further, each person reverted back to his or her innate style of conflict based on years of conditioning. This resulted in a difficult if not impossible transition to an authentic win/win resolution. Becky was prepared to Fight to the end, while Mark was going to Evade her at all costs. In classic Harmonizer fashion, all the CEO wanted was for them to "just get along."

‘We need to move beyond our primal urges and figure out a way to satisfy each other's needs using a win/win approach.’

When threatened, we humans are hardwired to revert back to a form of fight-or-flight response. This defense mechanism has protected our species for eons and has allowed us to prosper even in times of peril. But when we try to resolve organizational issues, we need to move beyond our primal urges and figure out a way to satisfy each other's needs using a win/win approach. Otherwise we risk setting up the antecedent conditions for the next conflict, creating a "tit-for-tat" cycle, eroding trust and plunging the team into further chaos.

Here are the four innate styles of conflict resolution and problem solving, each of which forms some combination of winning and losing:

  1. Fighter (I win, you lose)
  2. Evader (I lose, you lose)
  3. Harmonizer (You win, I lose)
  4. Compromiser (I lose, you lose)

Note that none of the innate styles creates a win-win outcome for the different parties involved. Only the Negotiator, a learned conflict resolution style, creates the ideal outcome:

Negotiator (I win, you win)

Except in a minority of special cases, the preferred style is the Negotiator - the most powerful style for resolving a conflict or problem in which people have different needs. Knowing when and how to be a Negotiator is a critical partnering relationship skill, and a critical skill for achieving success in business.

Six Partnering Attributes:

  1. Self-Disclosure and Feedback
  2. Ability to Trust
  3. Win/Win Orientation
  4. Future Orientation
  5. Comfort with Change
  6. Comfort with Interdependence

Learn More at Our Web Site

To learn more about your primary conflict resolution/problem solving style, and strategies for getting to win/win, check out our website at

Having a Win/Win Orientation is much more than creating solutions that satisfy people's needs, though it does that too. Using a Win/Win Orientation is a trust-building mechanism and, without trust, no partnership, alliance or team can thrive.


The Author


Stephen M. Dent is founder of Partnership Continuum, Inc., a leadership coach, and author of books, automated online assessments, and other tools that build more effective relationships at

Many more articles in Partnering & Alliances in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Stephen M. Dent. All rights reserved.

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