Virginia Bianco-Mathis
University professor, author

Virginia Bianco-Mathis

Business department chair of management programs at Marymount University and author of two books on executive coaching.

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Elegant solutions

Q: After months of acrimony in Congress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are joining together to try to reform the financial system. In your experience, is compromise and collegiality the road to success, or to neither-here-nor-there mediocrity? When has being single-minded and uncompromising helped you, and when has it hurt you?

Congress is working together on this issue of financial oversight because this time, their goals are the same: Oversight of the financial situation is seriously required. The drastic drop in the market on May 6 was a reminder of impending disaster, and -- as is the fashion with human beings -- we bind together at times of imminent danger. We have to be forced into it.

For example, though we had years of warning, it wasn't until our rivers were clogging up and fish were dying that we finally did something about pollution. And as we can see with Congress, when everyone can rally around the same cause, collegiality leads to a smooth, mutually supported result.

In the consulting I have done with businesses and in my own experience, it is collegiality that has been the key to what I call "elegant solutions." Let's get more specific. What is needed is not just compromise, but actual collaboration. For those who have studied conflict, you are aware of the intense research that has been done on conflict styles and reaching agreements.

Whether you are a student of Ury and Fry, Kilmann, or Kraybill, there tend to be five approaches to conflict: avoiding, directing, harmonizing, compromising, and collaborating. The key for ultimate success is knowing when to use which approach. Obviously, in a life/death situation, you are not going to sit around and harmonize. In the case of escaping a fire, I'm going to accept the directing style of the fire marshal and not demand that we all sit down and collaborate on the best escape route.

However, it has been proven that collaboration -- openly putting all agendas, ideas, needs and wants on the table -- and talking things through until the best solution emerges, is the way to discover the most workable, cost effective, and positive solution.

The downside to this approach is that it requires three things: time, dialogue skills, and everyone playing the same game. If you are trying to play collaboration but other members of the group are playing compromise or directing, win-win solutions turn into win-lose, lose-lose, and other zero-sum results. Sound like something you know? Something we call the American government system?

Now don't get me wrong. I believe our system is still the best around, but it is not "the" best. Inherent in the very design of our government is the concept of checks and balances. We do this in order to ensure fairness, freedom, participation, and support of the common good. Hence, we have debates that go on for hours, paperwork that is signed by 10 people before being released, constituent agendas influencing outcomes, and elected officials prancing in front of cameras to ensure the next election -- not in order to ensure the most elegant solution.

But we can't change it. If we streamline the government and try to make it more efficient, then it would no longer satisfy the large base constituency of America; rather, it would just be another, very large corporation.

So we accept the bad with the good. And accepting the bad means accepting that compromise is the number one approach used in Congress and our government agencies. After all the controversy and huffing and puffing, we end up with some kind of mismatched compromise. Not the best solution, but one that satisfies the largest number of agendas in some way.

Now, back to collaboration. I spend most of my time in executive coaching teaching executives the skills of collaboration. It does not come naturally. It requires practice and expertise in using language to turn the discussion game into a collaboration game.

Why learn to do it? It brings structure, satisfies all parties, fosters reasonableness, and influences towards the "elegant" result. That's my selling point. Most leaders like to lead. They like getting things done through others and they get frustrated when others don't do what they want (the typical "directing" style of conflict).

I hook into a leader's desire to influence and demonstrate that collaborative skills lead to a greater span of control and influence -- because you turn your attention to "how" the game is being played, not "winning your side." By doing this, your "side" gets played out along with everyone else's and through structured dialogue, the best approach emerges.

Most successful leaders discover the power of collaboration. Directing, the typical management style, can work for awhile -- but it fosters mediocrity. Comprising is better than no compromising. It at least moves the ball down the field. Collaboration, however, leads to the goal.

By Virginia Bianco-Mathis  |  May 13, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Meeting in the middle Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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