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Win-Win is Often Wrong Wrong

Talk to business executives and sales people across every industry and you will hear them sum up their approach to account management, sales, and negotiation as being focused on “win-win” outcomes. Now, if that is not a familiar phrase to you, it refers to the two companies or representatives (seller and buyer) pursuing an outcome that benefits each (hence, they each “win”).

The theory is that if both sides gain something in the transaction or relationship, then they will be more willing to continue to work together productively.  Contrasting that with an approach that has one party attempting to take advantage of the other in a way that the gain is felt on only one side at the expense of the other (win-lose relationships), and it doesn’t seem all that difficult to agree that win-win is the standard that businesses should aspire to achieve.

What could be more productive or beneficial than that? Seems about as intuitive and easy to agree with as they come, right? 

What it Misses

However, a true “win-win” approach is not always achieved, or even often accomplished.  In spite of the logical pull of this approach, it

The fear of losing is stronger than the pull of winning for some.

The fear of losing is stronger than the pull of winning for some.

does not happen with nearly the frequency it would seem to warrant.

The reason is for a very human concern.  As attractive as it is to “win” for us, and as much as the data, facts, logic, etc. can seem to support efforts in that direction; we are more highly motivated by the fear of losing.  For many business executives, the concern of avoiding a loss is stronger than the pull of acquiring a win.

No Lose-No Lose

While not as pithy to say, the reality is that it is often more compelling a motivation for negotiators and business executives to strike agreements where neither party suffers a loss or “no lose-no lose.”

When thinking about the outcome, we often consider “what could go wrong?” and then assess the risks and the dangers of a decision that may have some ambiguity of results or uncertainty.  Our minds go to the following:

  1. Will a more senior member of the organization blame the executive or sales person for a poor decision if the results are not as hoped?  Intention is not weighted as heavily as outcomes.
  2. Is anyone being “thrown under the bus” or being taken advantage of in the deal?
  3. Will the deal still seem to be as good in three months as it seems to be now or in the immediate future.

The Concern

For many business people the allure of “winning” comes with risk as it often means doing something new or different, or untested.  While there are rewards to be had, failure is often a very real possibility.

Contrarily, while it may not be as thrilling, few people get fired for doing the steady and expected behaviors.  Rather than reach for a lofty goal and fail (and open oneself up to criticism), the perception of many is that is preferable to take a safer approach and avoid a loss by being conservative.  While this belief may be challenged by many, to ignore that mindset is a mistake.

Therefore, when entering into a sales situation or negotiation, be aware of what the mindset is of the other person.  Are they focused on avoiding negative consequences, or on reaching for a positive outcome?


David Zahn