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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

The difference between compromise and negotiation

Question: In approaching the coming Congressional budget battle, House Republican leaders have decided to forsake the bipartisan center and bow to the spending-cut demands of the most conservative members of their caucus. This mirrors the strategy of House Democratic leaders who, in the previous session, accommodated the demands of their most liberal members on key issues, only to lose power in the next election. Is it more effective for leaders to demonstrate a willingness to compromise early on, or to stake out a hard line in the hope of compromising less later?

The decision whether to act tough versus to offer concessions is a matter of negotiation, not a matter of compromise. Negotiation is a tactic to gain a favorable outcome. Compromise is a strategy that embraces respect for others.

Political partisans like to disparage compromise. This hard-line stance may play well with political donors, but it is a distinct turnoff to the electorate who expect elected officials to do more than posture. Voters want elected officials to govern, even when it means working with the other side.

Politicians might learn something from management and labor negotiators. While both sides may talk tough, seldom does rhetoric cause the other side to blink. There is always room for compromise on assumptions and positions. Saying you will not compromise is rarely a sign of strength; it is hubris.

We all want to do things our own way. Leaders are no different. But somewhere along our human development process, say kindergarten, we learn that life does not play by our rules and only our rules. We learn that to get along with others you need to demonstrate a degree of understanding for what others want to do, too. This is how high-performing teams succeed; it is because people come together for common purpose in order to achieve results they all want to achieve.

Those who look prejudicially on compromise often confuse it with appeasement. Compromise is ensuring an agreement that mutually benefits both sides. Appeasement is capitulation and by nature a zero-sum game.

Compromise by contrast ensures that both sides get something for their efforts, and as a result each side can maintain a healthy sense of self-respect. This also establishes a platform upon which future cooperation, and ideally collaboration, can occur.

Inherent in compromise is sacrifice. That is, giving up something that you would like to do in order to achieve something the entire team would like to do. I know plenty of examples of team leaders stepping back from the process to allow others to contribute their ideas and solutions so that the project can be finished on time and on budget. Such team leaders also make a point of staying out of the way when accolades are being handed out; they want others on the team to be recognized.

There is an exception. Strong leaders do not compromise their principles, that is, their values. Compromising on ethics and integrity erodes something that is hard to win back: trust. However, the mistake some in power make is equating policy with principle. Policy is negotiable; principles are not. Principles should shape policy, not the other way around. Failure to distinguish between the two is an indication of a compromised intellect.

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By John Baldoni

 |  February 15, 2011; 9:46 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Corporate leadership , Government leadership , Political leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Leaving the world of standard operating procedures | Next: Compromise: Strength, weakness or a way of the past?


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Dear Mr. Baldoni, thank you for your insightful piece. I believe, in general that you are correct - leadership is about standing for principles that you believe, and fighting for them at all costs. In this manner, your definition of negotiation rather than compromise is, without a doubt, incredibly accurate. Ideally, a civic leader would embody and believe in the beliefs of his constituency - he would enact those beliefs as his own, and be a complete representation.

The necessity for compromise arises when there are conflicts in the desires of these beliefs. Effective negotiation will, as you suggested, make sure that the compromise reached is, without a doubt, the best decision. Nevertheless, focusing on the end results, rather than the means by which they are conducted is equally important. - The overall benefit of a bill should be the utmost priority, as opposed to how the negotiation is conducted, and this should never be lost sight of (and largely allows for compromise of conflicting interests).

My personal belief is that now is the time to hold strong on budgetary cuts, with $14 trillion in debt, and fiscal cuts only being an incredibly small fraction of this ($60 billion for the 2010 fiscal year, $100 billion for the 2011 budget) value, it really will be necessary to curtail the spending of a large number of groups, and anger a large number of interest groups. The current spending of the government is non-sustainable, and it is necessary to make decisions to place the U.S on a sustainable path again.

Mr. R. Kelly has the opinion that it's "not difficult at all" to make the budgetary cuts. Individuals must overcome the immediate benefits of short-term spending with the long-term benefits of cutting back spending and reducing the deficit.

The negotiation will be necessary to accomplish this, and it is my opinion that, while the republicans may be seen as taking a conservative stance - it really is the stance that must be taken, and is much closer to the position of compromise than might otherwise be expected.

Posted by: M_Lindsay_10 | February 18, 2011 2:46 PM
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While I wholeheartedly agree that caution should be garnered during decision-making so that values are not conceded, rigidly rejecting compromise can sometimes reflect stubborn obstinacy rather than benevolent leadership, as we discussed on the last leadership question with President Mubarak. However, compromise is a necessity to effectively producing results parallel to the desires of the American people. The Republican House leaders must understand the priority of working to satisfy the masses as opposed to the selfish goal of maintaining power and saving face. It looks poorly on the party to so defiantly oppose President Obama’s State of the Union Address plead to work together on the budget. What is better for the people, not the political party’s battle for majority rule? Of course, the Republican party needs to have those positions of authority, in the first place, to enforce their political agenda, but as long as the wisely negotiate without devaluing their stance, their considerate flexibility will bode kindly.

Posted by: sallyannzhou | February 18, 2011 12:34 PM
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In considering the effectiveness of leaders, one must define what is meant by actually being “effective”. In terms of Congressional politics, we often look at how successful a party is in enacting policy congruent with party goals. The problem is that these goals may not be wholly congruent with those of the populace. In terms of the Republican majority in the House, there obviously still remains a Democratic minority, also representing the interests of the people. To be effective, compromise in such a context is inevitable. It requires a flexibility that a party sticking to the “hard line” is incapacitated to address. The dynamism that is commanded forces leaders to not only assess their own aspirations, but also the aspirations and expectations of those they were elected to serve. As Baldoni states above, “voters want elected officials to govern, even when it means working with the other side”.

Posted by: colleenfugate | February 18, 2011 12:20 AM
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Compromise is necessary for the GOP. They do not control all of the congress so for the budget to pass they must and will compromise. The question they face, as Baldoni corectly points out, is how to negotiate that compromise, and what parts are they willing to compromise on. Senior Republican leaders would do well to discuss this with their colleagues and then provide a united front to work with the Democrats towards that compromise.

Posted by: ZechariahLau | February 16, 2011 8:19 PM
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