More Trust, More Guts, Fewer Buts

You want to be nice. You don't want to make anyone look or feel stupid. So you modify your position. You discount your own ideas. You are careful not to advocate too forcefully.

As a result, you succeed in finding a compromise. Yay. Hooray for compromise! And the person you are talking to still likes you.

But you miss out on leadership and the company misses out on a good idea. Even if you are wrong. Especially if you are wrong.

Here's how it happens. All you need to know for context is that Tom and Jamie work for a company that sells through four distributors, and Triangle is the biggest of the four. Jamie is Tom's boss.

Tom:   Triangle says if we don’t give them an additional six percent margin they’ll stop carrying our line.

Jamie: Triangle’s important to us. We’re on the razor’s edge of making our numbers as it is. But I hate to be blackmailed.

Tom:   I know, this is the third year they’ve made the same ask. But we can't lose them.

Jamie: I don’t want to encourage them. But we need to make those numbers. Maybe you should go back to Triangle and see if you can get them to accept a three percent increase.

Tom:   OK, best we can do.

Perfectly reasonable. They have a reasonable conversation that considers and conveys both sides. It's thoughtful and respectful. Conversations like this happen every day. Neither Tom nor Jamie says anything offensive or wrong, but they also don’t fully flesh out the issue. Let’s see what the conversation looks like with more guts and fewer buts.

Tom:   Triangle says if we don’t give them an additional six percent margin they’ll stop carrying our line.

Jamie: We can’t risk losing Triangle, so we need to give them the margin they ask for. It will cut into our profits, so we’ll have to make up the loss in additional volume from the other distributors.

Tom:   They’re blackmailing us. We can’t give them what they’re asking for. It’s the third year in a row. We have to stop it now or they’ll never stop asking for more.

Jamie: Let’s play this out—what happens if we walk away from Triangle?

Tom:   The three other smaller distributors have been bending over backwards to get more of our business, so I know I can get new volume from them.

Jamie: You can’t grow those accounts by enough to make up for Triangle in one year. They don’t have the coverage.

Tom:   There’s a couple of new distributors who want to work with us. We have a decent shot of making up the loss from Triangle this year. And we’ll definitely be in a stronger position next year, with wider distribution and a tougher reputation as a negotiation partner.

Jamie: After walking away from Triangle the other guys aren’t going to push us around on margin. Maybe we can even go up a point or two next year.

Tom:   Not to mention Triangle may relent once we give them our notice letter. But this can’t be a bluff.

Jamie: Go for it. No bluff. Let’s see what they do.

This time two contrasting positions smash up against each other right at the start. Jamie takes one side strongly, and by doing so, she encourages Tom to take the other side with strength.

Gutsy arguments are more likely to produce fully considered positions. Tom’s opinion remained steadfast while Jamie’s shifted. But note that Jamie started out the second scenario with a stronger position. The strength of Jamie’s position forced Tom to develop a tougher argument, sharing more of the data, and this helped Jamie develop a more informed point of view.

This only works if Jamie has the humility and brains to recognize a better way when it’s presented to her. And it only works if Jamie has done the hard work to create a trusting relationship with Tom, so he knows that it’s ok for him to truly speak his mind.

Create a trusting environment at work, and then have the gutsy conversations that environment affords.