A win-win solution is optimal in so many negotiation and conflict situations at work and home. But what do you do if that win-win solution isn’t obvious?
My first job out of grad school was as a career coach at a small private college. I was one of two finalists for the position. A year later, I was promoted to assistant director, with a nice little salary bump to go along with the shiny new title.
While I was on vacation, my boss hired the woman who had been the other finalist a year earlier. She would have my old job as career coach and I would now be her boss.
You probably think this is going to be a story about workplace conflict or difficult dynamics. It isn’t. We got along famously.
Shortly after the new coach started work, I happened to open the copy machine one day only to find a document face down on the glass. I turned it over to see who it belonged to.
It was the new coach’s contract.
My eyes traveled down the page to her salary. I admit it; I was 25 and shameless.
Her salary was higher than than mine.
She was earning $2,000 more than her new supervisor, and $5,000 more than my own career coach contract only the year before.
At the risk of sounding ancient: That was a lot of money then. Especially with my student loans and a mortgage I managed all by my then-single self.
It was a staggering moment. And, it turned out, a defining one.
What on earth could she want that I could offer?
Contract in hand, I went into my office, closed the door, leaned on it, and closed my eyes to think.
I realized that demanding equity was a weak approach. If equity mattered much to my supervisor, the new coach wouldn’t be earning more than me.
I could see that the best way to win her over was to make sure that giving me more money did something for her in return. We all know this now by the shorthand, “win-win.” But what, exactly?
I ticked through the possibilities that came immediately to mind: I’ll be happier and more motivated. I won’t be grumpy that my employee earns more than me. I won’t be pissed off that you treated me unfairly. They were pretty feeble offers — all about me and accusatory to boot.
What could she want that I could give her? What would matter to her enough to give me more money? I couldn’t see it. And I didn’t have much time to figure it out…what if she went looking for the contract?
Then a voice in my head, the one that always sounds suspiciously like Cher (don’t ask, I really have no idea), said, Maybe the thing you can offer her isn’t something you have…yet.
There it was.
I headed down the hall to my supervisor’s office. She was doing paperwork. You left something in the copier, I said, holding out the contract.
I recall my hand was trembling. Anger? Nerves? Probably both. But the anger would have been directed more at myself.
She looked at the contract, then up at me. All she said was: Well?
I managed a small smile. I will be a far better career coach for our students if I can teach them to advocate well for themselves in the hiring process. And I’ll be more believable if I can actually do it for myself. So here I am.
She studied me. And then: I’ll buy that.
When the win-win solution isn’t obvious
That was a banner day. I got another raise, a nice sum in return for 5 minutes’ nerve-wracking effort. But even better, I learned that…
- When the win-win solution isn’t initially obvious, the answer isn’t to give up, but to dig deeper.
- In ongoing personal and business relationships, demands (power) may damage the relationship while smart offers (influence) strengthen it.
- Good options can be obscured by bruised egos, frustration, and hopelessness, so we have to push those obstacles temporarily aside.
- Offers that contain accusations, even indirectly, are worthless. They’re just invitations for them to say no.
- As I have so re-learned so many times since, good questions can unlock bounty.
If you find yourself in a situation where the win-win solution is obscured from view, here are some questions that might help:
- At work: How, exactly, would the thing I want make my work (or my team’s work) more exceptional in their eyes?
- At home: How, exactly, would the thing I want make our lives better from their point of view?
- Anywhere: What if the best thing I could offer them doesn’t exist now, but it could exist if they said yes? What thing (that they really want) could it be?