Book-projects – Power and response-ability: I and We and Us and Them

Spheres of influence

Each of us has our own power; each of us has our own persona, the ‘mask’ with which we face the world; and each of us has our own sphere of influence, our own direct area of response-ability. Often we want to extend that sphere, for a while at least – perhaps to do work that we cannot do alone, or to gain access to resources that we cannot reach on our own. To do this, we have to share: share power, and response-ability, with others. Expanding the scope at each stage, one person becomes a member of a team, of a department, of a company, of a corporation; ‘I’ becomes ‘We’, becomes ‘Us’, in relation to ‘Them’.

And in the midst of the sharing of power, the same old issues, the same old mistakes, repeat themselves at every level. Individuals try to prop themselves up by putting others down; teams try to offload responsibility onto other teams; departments and companies try to ‘win’ by making others lose. It all seems so normal – especially as some resources really are ‘zero-sum’ – that for many people it’s difficult to even begin to understand that none of this in-fighting actually works: yet all it does is reduce the overall ‘ability to do work’, for everyone.

Much of the problem arises from an inability to be aware of a scope wider than the immediate sphere of influence – and the problem is often made worse by unnecessarily restrictive ‘need to know’ policies, with results that are best described by the phrase “never let the left hand know what the right or middle hands are doing”. It’s also easy to imagine that power-over and power-under do actually work, when the feedback from such ‘games’ between departments or companies may take weeks or months to return.

But perhaps a better way to understand these problems is to think of them as a failure to manage appropriately the boundaries of each sphere of influence: boundaries of space, of time, of response-ability and, especially, between self and others. When we join a team, it’s easy to think that we are the team, that our ideas and actions and choices are the centre of the team’s existence; if we don’t do this, we’re likely to feel instead that we aren’t a member of the team at all, that we have no reason to be there, and hence no reason to work – the ‘motivation’ issue again. The catch, of course, is that the same is true for every member of the team; and the same issues repeat at every level, so that the accounts department, for example, may think that it’s the centre of the company, that it’s the sole reason for the company’s existence, and that everything else in the company revolves around it. This sets the stage for some massive misunderstandings…

Although we can see these misunderstandings at work in a business environment, their source actually goes right back to early childhood – specifically, the development of awareness of the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’. Right at the beginning, our world consists entirely of ‘I’, experiencing impressions and events which we can’t really resolve into anything specific – a kind of world of ‘is-ness’. There are impressions we like, and ones we don’t – and about which we may make a great deal of noise! – but otherwise we can’t really differentiate between them: and our sphere of influence – or at least awareness – seems to encompass everything that there is. Over time, though, we slowly develop a sense that some of those impressions have definite links to ‘I’, so we set about exploring the immediate limits of that ‘I’: watch a baby playing with its feet, for example. And by the time we get fully mobile, and develop a sense of volition, we reach a stage dreaded by every parent: the ‘terrible twos’, the time of tears and tantrums… and the time when the delusions about power-over and power-under first become established.

What’s actually going on at this stage of childhood is that we now have a clear idea that there is such a thing as ‘not-I’: and we don’t like it. At all. We haven’t yet grasped the idea that things exist independent of us: we know that ‘I’ is still the centre of the world, around which everything revolves. We’re just gaining control of our body; we obviously should be able to control anything, everything, in the same way. But ‘not-I’ doesn’t always do what we want: our sphere of influence suddenly seems to shrink into a small ball of frustrated anger. So we try to take control of ‘not-I’ too – a parent, a toy, another child, or whatever it might be. And we do so by treating ‘not-I’ either as an object, a ‘thing’ without volition or needs of its own; or as our subject, an entity which we believe we’re entitled to use as we wish, because – to our perception – it exists only as a sort of semi-attached extension of ourself.

  • Object-based attitude: one in which ‘the other’ is regarded as an inanimate object entirely separate from self.
  • Subject-based attitude: one in which ‘the other’ is regarded as a subject which exists only as a subsidiary extension of self.

Object-based attitudes tend to surface as attempts at power-over; subject-based attitudes tend to surface both as power-over and power-under, but especially the latter. And as you can imagine, both these perspectives on reality can cause big problems – especially in a crowded kindergarten full of similarly self-centred toddlers!

It’s only at a later stage of development – around five to eight years old – that it finally sinks in that ‘not-I’ can be another person, just like us, with whom we need to negotiate whenever our spheres of influence and interest overlap. Even so, those childish object-based and subject-based attitudes are always there, still lurking in the background, and can pop back up again even in the most unexpected places, especially where there are potential difficulties about overlapping spheres of influence. When life gets too frustrating, it’s all too easy to fall back into an imaginary world in which we alone are the centre: falling into power-over, treating others as objects, as robots that exist only to do our bidding; or power-under, cajoling, bullying, nagging others into changing themselves to conform to our wishes. Or both, of course.

Once again, the same issues repeat at every level: it’s not just individuals, but teams, departments and whole corporations that can fall into this trap. Which is why we see a lot of it in company rule-books and the like: “All members of staff shall…”. Yet people don’t respond well to being treated as objects, or as subjects of someone else’s whims: which is why there’s so much office-politics, and why the rule-books so often get ignored even when they genuinely need to be followed. And it’s also why sales-staff who think they ‘own’ their customers, or companies that think they ‘own’ some market-share, are often in for a nasty surprise. It’s a real problem.

It’s a bit embarrassing to realise that many company handbooks and company policies effectively echo the obsessive self-centredness of a two-year-old, trying to ‘control’ others without understanding that others are perfectly capable of controlling themselves in their own way. But we don’t solve the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist – even though historically that’s been the most common response to that realisation. More sensibly, we aim to get the whole company to ‘grow up’ – metaphorically speaking – by testing, checking, reviewing our individual and collective interactions with others. We learn to identify old habits of power-over and power-under at every level; and we learn to replace them them with new habits of power-with – of negotiation, rather than ‘control’ – wherever our spheres of influence need to overlap those of others with whom we share our world and work.

Hidden voices

A key part of this negotiation depends on a recognition not only that each level – ‘I’, ‘We’, ‘Us’, and ‘Them’ as well – has its own sphere of influence, but also has its own persona, its own voice. ‘Persona’ is the Latin word for ‘mask’, but also literally translates as ‘that through which I sound’: as we’ll see, both meanings are relevant here, in a business context.

In law, a company is considered to be a legal person in its own right, a compound entity or body comprised of, yet legally distinct from, the human bodies associated with it. Company law defines the rights and responsibilities of such ‘incorporations’, though with some odd anomalies by comparison with regular law: for example, companies can have limited liability, where individuals can’t; and companies can own other companies, whereas individuals – fortunately! – can’t own other individuals. Yet this concept of a compound entity is more than just a convenient legal fiction: at the level of persona, it’s entirely real. It’s what we experience as ‘corporate culture’, for example. The persona of a compound entity such as a team or department or company – or, more obviously, a football crowd – is not just the sum of its human parts, nor (usually) is it the lowest common denominator of those parts: instead, in a very literal sense, it has a life of its own – and one that can swamp the personas, and lives, of those who make up that compound entity, simply because it is ‘greater than self’ relative to each individual.

Our persona is not ‘I’ as such, but a kind of mask of habits through which we feel safe in interacting with the rest of the world ‘out there’. Those habits, in effect, also indicate what we’re likely to do well and not so well: which is why attempts to map those habits through ‘personality testing’ of some kind are common in business, especially in recruitment. One of the best-known tools is the MBTI, or ‘Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’, derived from Jungian theory, which identifies sixteen distinct ‘psychological types’; there are many other tools, some of which, frankly, are worse than useless. The MBTI is certainly useful, but limited in that it looks only at the individual, and regards personality-type as fixed, or static; other models, such as a nine-type model known as the Enneagram, are more useful in that they also map personality changes under varying levels of stress; and others, such as Transactional Analysis and the classical Chinese five-phase model used in Group Dynamics, are more useful still in that they map habits of interaction as well as static choices. This personality-mapping applies not only at the individual level: from statistical correlations, we can also use the same tools to build a fairly accurate picture of the persona of a larger group – the larger-scale habits and patterns of behaviour underlying corporate culture.

The crucial understanding – one that’s missing from the MBTI and many other tools – is that ‘personality’ isn’t fixed at all: it’s just a habit. Good personality-mapping tools can identify habitual patterns of behaviour, our reflexive ‘non-choices’: but even though those habits may be reinforced strongly by our body-type and our background, they are just habits, and we can choose alternate actions and responses in any circumstance. That’s our power; in a very literal sense, that’s our response-ability. Our habits are our reflex-response behaviours, of both body and mind, which we’ve built up either through consciously learning a skill – such as typing, or driving a car – or simply through the pressures and demands of our everyday life. These responses are fast – and hence often more productive, where they’re appropriate – precisely because we don’t have to think about them: but that’s also why they cause us – and others – all manner of problems. By learning how to create a gap for choice, wherever required, between event and response, and then practicing what we’ve learnt within a safe environment – otherwise known as ‘play’ – we can greatly reduce those problems: and in the process greatly increase our overall productivity, both for ourselves and with others. And the same applies at the larger-scale levels: as we become more aware of choice as individuals, we also create choice for ‘We’ – the persona in the direct interactions we have with others, such as in teams and work-groups – and for ‘Us’ – the persona in our indirect interactions, at the level of department, division, company and corporation.

Individual change can be hard, not least because there’s a strong tendency to think that we are our habits, our usual ways of working with the world. Yet ‘I’ is not that which changes, ‘I’ is that which chooses: whoever we are, whatever we do, and however we do it, we still remain ourselves – and the same applies to organisations. Yet cultural change, at the levels beyond the individual, is often harder still, because it’s not just the habits of individuals that need to change, it’s the habits of interaction between those individuals and groups that need to change, too.

Unsurprisingly, there’s usually a lot of resistance to such change, not least because it regularly brings people to the discomforting realisation that their individual and collective habits are only habit, and not ‘just the way things are’. For organisations, there also needs to be an acknowledgement that people don’t resist change as such, but they do resist being changed – especially when the changes seem to be only for the benefit of others, or for no-one at all. Attempts at changing corporate culture by ‘edict from above’ – such as publishing a new ‘mission statement’, and expecting everyone in an entire corporation to change themselves and their work to match this new direction – simply don’t work: the resistance to enforced change is simply too great. Change only happens by negotiation with all those involved – creating power-with to show that everyone ‘wins’ through the change.

There’s a subtle but serious complication, though, to do with the nature of persona as ‘mask’. It’s an issue that seems little understood in business, and has actually been studied mainly in improvisational theatre – though that’s an excellent practice-ground for business-folk who need to think fast on their feet! The problem is that although the persona-mask – whatever that individual or collective persona might be – is only a collection of habits, it does as a result have a kind of life of its own: we have choices, but in effect so too does the mask. This becomes especially evident if the mask can be perceived in some way as partially – but only partially – separate and distinct from ourselves. In ‘impro’ theatre, for example, it’s been found that this applies particularly to the kind of half-masks which cover the eyes and upper face but leave the lower face and mouth exposed – yet that’s a good metaphor for many business roles, too… These Masks (in theatre, they usually emphasise that capital ‘M’, and with good reason!) develop a kind of ‘vocabulary’ of their own, which tends to be expressed – often unconsciously – by each and every wearer of that Mask. So whenever we put on a metaphorical Mask – such as, in business, taking on a work-role, or joining a work-team or a company – we necessarily enter into negotiation with that Mask: and if we’re not aware that we are always in negotiation with it, our own choices can get swamped, because the Mask’s vocabulary and voice will seem to us to be our own.

Whoever we are, we find ourselves acting out the habits of the role-persona, the Mask ‘through which I sound’ – thinking that they’re our own habits, our own choices. Most people in business will know all too well that feeling of being ‘taken over’ by a role, or by the demands of corporate unanimity: it’s almost like ‘being possessed’ by the role, the group, the company. And in large corporations especially, with strong peer-pressure and a strong corporate culture, this ‘take-over’ can happen very fast indeed – with measurable change in new employees within less than a day, in some cases – simply because the persona of the corporation is so much ‘greater than self’ that there’s little or no space left for any other kind of ‘I’. If this happens, our sense of self is likely to falter and fade, at times to almost nothing – and with it our ‘ability to do work’, because our power and response-ability, as we’ve seen, ultimately depend on clear awareness of our own ‘I’.

It’s a serious problem. And it’s one that isn’t helped by the fact that many corporations, by their structure and their sheer size, tend to trap themselves into treating their staff as work-objects, or as mere subjects of the corporate will, or both – and thus, in the quest for some kind of control and unanimity, create systems that inherently reduce the overall ‘ability to do work’ within the corporation. The only way out of this trap is to be aware of the natural tendency of all groups towards object-based and subject-based attitudes towards their individual members; and instead to design systems which support – rather than crush, smother or silence – individual power and response-ability.

Systems within systems

For convenience, and for other practical reasons, we tend to partition work into ‘systems’ – collections of related work processes with defined inputs and outputs and, usually, defined activities. Having partitioned work in this way, it’s then easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these systems, and the boundaries between them, are natural and inherent in ‘the way things are’ – rather than the reality, which is that, ultimately, all boundaries are entirely arbitrary.

And rather too many of these boundaries exist not for functional reasons, but as ways to conceal structural or habitual power-over and power-under – especially the latter, as ‘offloading of responsibility to another’. For example, think of that infamous excuse ‘computer error’: “yes, we admit that we billed you for $10,000 instead of $100 because of a computer error”. So what exactly was this mysterious computer error? Software? Hardware? Network? If – as is most likely in this case – it’s nothing to do with the computer as such, but a keying mistake, whose responsibility is it? The operator? The supervisor? The training department? The software developers, or the testers, for not including real-world limit-checks in their data-entry facilities? The keyboard manufacturers, for designing and building a keypad which even made it possible for an operator to add a couple of extra zeroes by mistake? For a blame-based society with liability lawyers always looking for work, there are lots of opportunities for litigation here… So we hide from the problem, and call it ‘computer error’ instead – make out that “the computer did it to us” – and now it’s no-one’s responsibility, because it’s now conveniently outside of everyone’s apparent boundaries. (This kind of ‘game-play’ with boundaries, incidentally, is a common power-under ‘export’-mechanism: it’s also used in scapegoating, for example. ‘The other’ – here, the computer-system – is first included within the sphere of influence, and then forcibly excluded by blame, to push responsibility away from self.) So nothing gets done: no-one learns. And no-one has the response-ability to deal with the issue: so it happens again, and again, and again…

If we take a true system-view of the situation, the real system isn’t just the computer, or the network, or the operators, or the training manuals, or whatever: it’s all of it – the way everything interacts within that overall task. A ‘system error’ occurs when anything fails anywhere within that larger system. As software designers know all too well, most of the system-failures occur at the edges, the boundaries between systems; to control anything completely, we actually end up needing to control everything. (Which isn’t possible, of course – an issue we’ll be looking at later.) Every system is part of a larger system – all the way up to ‘the everything’. For sanity’s sake, we create arbitrary boundaries between systems: but it’s important to remember that those boundaries are only arbitrary.

It’s also important to remember that the only real source of power – and especially the response-ability to solve new problems or to find new solutions to old ones – comes from people. So no matter what the problem looks like, no matter how technical, it’s always a ‘people-problem’. Tracking down network glitches, or integrating software and hardware systems: it’s technical, yes, but it’s really a people-problem. Developing strategies, designing new products, making them, marketing them: they all depend on awareness, creativity, consistency, drive – and finding and supporting any of those human energies is a people-problem. In many contexts, the human side of systems is the only one which matters: we can build systems within systems within systems, we can build systems-of-systems that connect and interact with other systems-of-systems, but ultimately what those systems are really made up of is people, and the connections between them.

It’s here, too, that the subject-based and object-based attitudes so common in corporate systems get to be so seriously counter-productive. It’s easy enough to demand in some procedure-manual that “All staff shall…”: but objects don’t and can’t think – which means that treating people as objects guarantees that problems cannot be solved, and that responses can only be reactive, not proactive. Because everyone’s skills and experience are different, the best way to do a task – and achieve the same overall outcomes – will always be different for each person: the procedure-manual’s subject-based assumptions about the ‘right’ way to carry out every tiny activity will usually just get in the way. Most people are entirely capable of working out their own best way of doing their work: not trusting them to do so, or even not allowing them to do so, is not only insulting, but crushes the creativity that corporations most need from ‘their’ people, in order to resolve those inevitable uncertainties at the system-boundaries.

Many, if not most, of the methods used to ‘control’ people, in order to control a system, actively reduce the availability of ‘the ability to do work’. The results is systems – and hence work-practices – that are often inefficient, unreliable, inelegant and inappropriate. Trying to ‘control’ every last detail of every item within each system is just plain inefficient: and reality isn’t that predictable, anyway. Yes, all those procedure-manuals and the like are necessary: but only to define guidelines, and to describe recommended actions for routine conditions. For anything else, each system must provide enough flexibility to cope with inherent uncertainty – and full support for power and response-ability, and all the other aspects of the human side of systems.

Conditions and context

If we want people to work, we need to provide conditions in which they can work well. The necessary management of physical conditions is well-documented: that’s usually handled under the general heading of ‘health and safety at work’, and covered by a vast mass of legislation – though often not much thought, in practice, beyond vaguely satisfying the legal requirements. By comparison, management of non-physical conditions rarely even makes the agenda: there’s some inconsistent and erratic legislation about harassment and discrimination, which most companies try to ignore, but that’s about it. Yet it’s there that so many of the real productivity losses arise, because power-over and power-under are allowed to run rampant, crushing the real ‘ability to do work’.

Some of the problems can arise from the the way people feel in different environments. To give just one simple example, look at the ‘cube-farm’ so common in large offices. In principle, the cubicles give a measure of privacy, and relative freedom from distraction, in order to get on with personal work. In practice, as immortalised in Scott Adams’ ‘Dilbert’ cartoons, cube-farms are often a disaster-area: there’s no easy way to communicate other than by email (phones being discouraged as too noisy and too public), so even immediate neighbours rarely speak to each other – and genuine team-work is all but impossible. Worse, many cube-farm layouts are set up so that each person is facing directly away from the opening, with their back to the ‘door’: this allows paranoid managers to look over anyone’s shoulders at any time to check what they’re doing – but productivity drops like a brick, because much of everyone’s energy is going towards ‘watching your back’. That ‘backs to the door’ mistake was documented by the Chinese well over a thousand years ago, but it’s still being repeated in companies everywhere today: so even something as crass as popular-magazine feng-shui can be helpful in identifying fundamental design errors like these, because it includes functional tools to map feeling-responses to layouts and structures.

Every incident of power-over or power-under reduces the overall ‘ability to do work’: to gain maximum productivity, we need to minimise them wherever possible. And there’s a lot that we can do to reduce them within a corporation. For example, look at the procedure-manuals: even something as simple as explaining why a procedure should be followed will reduce the usual feeling of power-over and power-under, and increase the real power to identify and resolve boundary-conditions where the usual procedure won’t work well. Take a close look at the persona of each team, each department: rigid conformity leads to a kind of ‘group-think’ which can lose touch with external reality – a problem that has killed many a company in the past. Encourage the managers and team-representatives to look closely at how much they identify with that role: if they lose themselves in the role, they won’t be able to be themselves – which means they won’t be able to find from within themselves the creativity and strength that the role actually needs. And, especially, memorise those definitions of power, of power-with, of power-over and power-under: create a new habit of watching for them within yourself and others, encourage others to do likewise, and take action on what you see. Even meetings become productive when office-politics and the usual panderings to overblown egos are all quietly removed from the equation…

So there’s a lot we can do within the company. But in the wider community, power-over and power-under are close to the rule rather the exception: look at any newspaper, any TV show, at almost all advertising… We can’t ‘control’ any of it – but it can still seriously affect our work within the company. For example, look at the manager of your software development team at PerfectPlaceToWork: she’s been with the company for years, one of your best senior staff, a good worker, and one who works well with everyone. But ‘out there’, her twins go to HellOnEarth Primary School; her elder daughter’s just gone missing again; her teenage son’s in trouble with the police; her live-in mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s; she’s been kept awake all night for the third time this week by next-door’s drunken partying; and her husband’s just been sacked from his job as sales manager for Ghastly Products Inc, as the current scapegoat for their marketing mistakes, and has to go into hospital next week for another heart-operation. The issues other staff face may well be worse: that junior clerk over there, for example, has terminal cancer and knows that he only has a few months to live – but there he is, still at his desk. Everyone has life-difficulties: it should hardly be a surprise that the problems can sometimes spill over into work. More to the point, given the amount of ‘export’ going on out there as well as in here within the company, it’s often amazing that people manage to get any work done at all – which also confirms that the real source of power lies within people, and nowhere else. And anything we can do to support that power will help: not just them as individuals, but everyone, including the company itself.

This isn’t just about being ‘nice’ to people – although that kind of attitude, as long as it’s not based on ‘lose/win’, will certainly help. It’s simply that anything which reduces power-over and power-under helps everyone: everyone wins. And that includes the company: the effects can be seen all the way through to an improved ‘bottom-line’. Creating conditions in which this can happen doesn’t even need to cost much: all it really costs is a better awareness of what’s actually going on – though that awareness can sometimes be the one of hardest of skills to achieve!

Competition and cooperation

Power isn’t only about our own ability to do work: it’s also about how we share that power with others. True, we start off as ‘I’, with all the power that we have within us. But to get further than that, we meet with others – and immediately, created by us and between us, there is ‘We’, a compound entity which has its own persona and, in a very real sense, its own choices, though we ourselves play an active part in the framing of those choices. Then there’s the wider scope of ‘Us’: groupings to which we consider we belong, but in a less direct way – such as a company, or a church, or a neighbourhood or state. And finally, there’s ‘Them’: groupings to which we believe we don’t belong, but with which in some way we have to relate.

There are no specific boundaries between any of these: in practice, the boundaries we perceive between ‘I’ and ‘We’ and ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ wander all the time, depending on what we’re doing and feeling and the like. And we make connections between them: for example, meeting the company’s chief executive in person can create – or, if it was handled poorly, destroy – an assembly-line worker’s sense of unity with the company, a sense of ‘belonging’ created between ‘I’ and the more distant ‘Us’. As more and more connections are made, the sense of this wider ‘Us’ expands outward until, eventually, there’s an awareness that there’s really no such thing as ‘Them’: just a more distant kind of ‘Us’ that is, at core, essentially the same as ‘We’ and ‘I’. And we can work, and play, and learn, with ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ and ‘We’, through cooperation, and through competition.

Yet here, once again, there are some massive misunderstandings… Many people in business regard all forms of cooperation with their rivals as tantamount to commercial suicide; on the other extreme, some feminist theorists have gone so far as to label all forms of competition as inherently abusive (and inherently ‘male’ – though that’s another story), and hence should be banned everywhere, including in business. Yet cooperation and competition are equally essential: without cooperation, nothing can be achieved; and without competition – if only with ourselves – nothing new can be learned. The crucial distinction is not between competition and cooperation as such, but between cooperation and competition with others versus cooperation and competition against others. In our working relationships with others, we can use either to create power, or to destroy it: the choice is ours.

As usual, most of the problems arise from attempted ‘export’ and the zero-sum mistake. In fact, even the basic idea that there is such a thing as ‘Them’ arises from that mistake: in ‘win/lose’ there must be a ‘Them’ – someone or something other than ‘Us’ – to take from, otherwise there couldn’t be any gain for ‘Us’. In business especially, there’s a tendency to regard only the nearby players in a given market as ‘Them’, ‘the competition’, and ignore those further out: infighting in a narrow market sector can have fatal or near-fatal results for all concerned if an ‘outside’ player expands their own market into the sector. A well-known example was the fragmentation of the high-end computing market in the 1980s and 1990s by competing Unix vendors. Each vendor had their own proprietary version of the Unix operating-system that, partly by intention, would not communicate – cooperate – well with those of others. But they were so busy fighting each other for ‘market share’ that they failed to notice that their overall market was being squeezed by Microsoft moving in from below: many of the big-name Unix vendors – companies like Digital and Honeywell – were all but wiped out, almost without warning, in a matter of months. The Unix market-segment seemed doomed to extinction: its unlikely ‘rescuer’, creating a whole new market for Internet-related and other Unix products, was Linux – a free version of Unix, developed entirely through cooperation and non-proprietary ‘Open Source’ standards. At the present time, Linux has been embraced eagerly by the few remaining Unix vendors – companies such as IBM and Sun – but whether they also grasp the lesson about the importance of cooperation remains to be seen.

The fear of loss inherent in the win/lose concept is a key reason why so many people are so afraid of cooperation: yet with so many people playing win/lose, there’s often good reason to be wary. It’s also a reason why so many people shy away from a functional understanding of power. If we recognise that the only way that works is win/win, then our aim in negotiation must necessarily be that the other should also win; but if we’re up against someone who’s playing win/lose, their aim is to win not by cooperation, but by ‘making’ us lose. They may attempt to do so through power-over – by bullying, for example, or by monopolistic ‘unfair business practices’ – or through power-under – by ‘playing victim’, for example, or misusing the courts to harass a competitor about alleged ‘unfair business practices’. But it actually doesn’t matter how it’s done: we’re in the situation that we want them to win, and they want us to lose – and it’s not a good position for us to be in…

The simplest response to this kind of situation is the quote from the old movie ‘War Games’: “the only way to win is to not play”. But often this isn’t possible: if nothing else, it shuts us out of the business, and eventually leaves it in the hands of people who really do only ‘play dirty’ – which helps no-one, given that win/lose is actually an illusory form of lose/lose. The problem is well described in an academic exercise called ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’: and it does point to a strategy that actually works in situations like these.

The ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’ scenario is very simple, yet actually quite realistic. Both you and your partner have been arrested by the Secret Police. You each face a two-year jail-sentence, if you’re lucky: you don’t have that option to walk away, here… And you’re each told, privately, that if you fake-up evidence against your partner, your sentence will be reduced to one year – but your partner’s sentence will go up to five years instead. The same will happen to you if your partner fakes-up evidence against you: you could both end up with a five-year sentence. Individually, you stand gain by ‘ratting’ on your partner; but collectively – the sum of both sentences – you lose by doing so; and you both lose if you both cheat on each other. Whichever way it’s played, and whoever plays it, playing win/lose here results in an overall loss – exactly as we saw with power-over and power-under.

If it’s just once-off, and it’s known that it’s just once-off, almost everyone tries for the win/lose option: after all, I benefit, and so what if my now-former partner doesn’t? But what if it isn’t just a once-off? What happens if the scenario is repeated again and again and again, with each partner alternating as to who gets to choose first? Suddenly win/lose doesn’t look such a good idea: my partner wants revenge, and this time I’m the one who’s stuck in the slammer for the next five years… This ‘iterated’, or repeated, version of the dilemma has been studied intensively in academic circles, trying all manner of ingenious tricks in order to come off best. Yet after all that ingenuity, and decades of research, there’s still only one strategy that’s been found which guarantees the shortest sentence for any one individual – and it’s one that results in the shortest overall sentence for both. It’s also the simplest strategy of all: tit-for-tat. If you start first, start off with trust: that gives you both the shortest first sentence. Thereafter, repeat exactly what your partner does: if your partner cheats on you, you do exactly the same next time, exactly once, and then go back to trust. Despite the general lack of trust – and even ethics – in business and elsewhere, and despite all the omnipresent temptations to cheat, to gain some momentary ‘competitive advantage’, the only truly successful strategy – collectively and individually – is never to cheat at all. Which is kind of interesting…

And as usual, the same issues repeat on every scale. One of the most common business strategies is ‘cooperation against’: working with each other for the purpose of acting collectively against someone else. (For many people, that’s effectively what a company is, of course.) But because its overall purpose is ‘against’, the overall result is the same: it’s just a larger-scale variant of win/lose – in other words, yet another illusory form of lose/lose. The opposite is ‘competition with’, where we agree to work ‘against’ each other for the purpose of improving our mutual skills, or developing ideas that none of us would have found on our own: on the surface, it often looks like win/lose, but its primary purpose is power-with, so it’s actually win/win. Most business-simulations and ‘practice-grounds’ are competition-with: they work well for everyone, improving everyone’s business skills, unless someone thinks that they alone should be ‘the winner’ – in which case everyone loses. Linus Torvalds, the creator and coordinator of the Linux project, is one well-known master of ‘competition with’: his dictum “may the best code win” – appropriateness of code, regardless of the nominal status of whoever submitted it – has been cited as one of the core reasons for the success of Linux.

Some resources that we deal with in business are zero-sum: if they are, then yes, we may well have to compete with others for our share of them. But there aren’t that many of them – even budgets often aren’t as fixed as they at first appear, when all the trade-offs are fully taken into account. And competing against others for resources that aren’t fixed – such as ideas, or people, or power, or even market-share – invariably leads into a situation in which everyone loses. Few things in business really work in the simplistic way that win/lose expects: cooperation with competitors on standards, for example, usually expands an existing market; deliberately giving away our best ideas – as Philips did with their designs for the audio-cassette and video-cassette – can create a new market for everyone, from which everyone can benefit; competition with others creates the ideas, the innovations, that make the market so worthwhile; whereas competition against others can easily destroy a market – and everyone involved as well. Competition and cooperation are necessary facts of business life: how we use them is our choice, our response-ability – for ‘I’, for ‘We’, for ‘Us’, and for ‘Them’ too.

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