When is “win-win” a no-no?

Prick nine out of ten business gurus, and they’ll bleed “win-win.”

You’ve heard their advice: “If you give the other guy most of what he wants, he’ll give you most of what you want.” 

Sounds great! All fair and square, right? 

Well, I swore by the “win-win” principle for years and never questioned it. But I also typically left the bargaining table with less than I wanted. Worse yet, I left with less than I needed. And the other dude always sauntered off happily with his wheelbarrow of chips. 

I finally figured out why: 

I entered each deal taking the moral high ground. I was looking out for both of us. You know, win-win. 

My worthy adversary, however, wasn’t playing for “win-win.” He was playing for the whole damn enchilada. 

In other words, we weren’t using the same rulebook. So even though I had the moral high ground, he’d taken the bare-fisted, street-fighting high ground. I was ready to settle for 50 percent in the deal. He wanted it all. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I still think “win-win” is ideal. Life should be a cooperative arena, not a competitive one. But that only works if both parties come together with that standard in mind. 

Some suggestions for using “win-win” successfully: 

  • Know with whom you’re dealing. Understand the rulebook they play from. Remember that you can walk away any time.
  • Always go to the bargaining table hoping for a “win-win” result, but never take it for granted. 
  • Embrace “win-win” as a lover, not a marriage partner. Love the principle, but don’t be so committed to it that you lose flexibility in your negotiation. 
  • Remember that “win-win” doesn’t have to be 50-50. “Fair” is whatever two people agree it is. That may be 70-30 — with you, I hope, getting the 70. If the other party is fat and happy with 30, hey, then that’s fair!
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When is “win-win” a no-no? — 2 Comments

  1. From an Austrian economics standpoint, you can never know for sure what 50-50 is, even if you are aware of the other person’s costs. You may think you’re getting a 50-50 deal or even 70-30, but the other person may think it’s 70-30 in his favor, maybe because of some intangible or subjective benefit that has value to him, but is worthless or of little value to you.