SmartBrief on Leadership


How to Overcome a Stalemate

Picture the scene: You’re seated at the head of a long conference table in a windowless, underground conference room where tension is as thick as the air. Sitting across from one another are two factions of a large corporation — sales and finance — who for some time have been at loggerheads. Before you know it the two sides are hurling accusations at one another, f-bombs start flying, and you realize that you’re dealing with a textbook stalemate.

What do you do?

We’ve all been in situations like this. Sometimes a stalemate is just that: immovable object meets irresistible force and nothing is going to change until one of them (voluntarily or otherwise) gives way. But in many cases a stalemate is simply the result of the two parties unwittingly operating from different premises. That’s what was happening in the above (true) story.

Have you ever agreed to meet with someone who works across town but didn’t pin down the location? You think they’re coming to your office and they think you’re coming to theirs, and sometime after the meeting was to start you connect via phone or email and realize there has been a mix-up. The meeting didn’t take place because you weren’t on the same premises. The same thing happens when people can’t come to a meeting of the minds.

Take the recent controversy about professional athletes kneeling for the national anthem. Protesting players say they feel an obligation to point out that the nation has not yet fully lived up to its ideals. But many Americans are offended by the disrespect they believe kneeling shows to the flag and the brave men and women who’ve fought for it.

The key to understanding this stalemate is to examine the premises from which each side of the argument is operating: the former is focused on the “why” of the protest, while the latter is focused on the “what.” The resulting rancor is unfortunate, as they both likely agree on the bigger issues.

The same goes for many of our political battles. Democrats and Republicans, for the most part, want the same things: prosperity, security, justice. But since they operate from different premises, they tend to misunderstand each other’s motivations and get caught up in arguing about the causes of our problems rather than solutions to them. The result is the incredibly unproductive environment we now have inside the Beltway.

When a company is struggling, internal arguments can get heated, sometimes to the point of stalemate. It’s easy at this point for things to get ugly and, out of frustration, for people to hurl accusations, engage in ad hominem attacks or (even worse) exhibit passive aggression. This lack of alignment is a common and destructive dynamic in troubled firms that can derail them for good if left unchecked.

We have found, however, that many arguments dissipate when people simply take the step of revisiting — in goodwill — the premises behind each other’s thinking. That’s what we did with the warring conference room factions. The company had a very real issue with which it was struggling; it was losing market share in a rapidly commoditizing industry. The sales team wanted finance to loosen up the margins so they could offer more competitive prices, and the finance team wanted sales to “sell harder.”

Ultimately, neither was a tenable solution, but by examining the premises underlying each party’s position we identified a third way that met both their needs. The tension dissipated like clouds after a rain.

Richard Rumelt, a distinguished professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, once wrote, “The most important element of a strategy is a coherent viewpoint about the forces at work, not a plan.” His point is that plans are only as good as the premises upon which they’re based; if our viewpoints about “the forces at work” differ, it should come as no surprise that our conclusions about what to do about them will differ as well.

The next time you’re dealing with a stalemate, step back from the argument and revisit the premises on which it is based. Determine if the difference of opinion is really due to irreconcilable worldviews. Experience has taught us that many stalemates arise as a result of differing expectations or assumptions. When that’s the case, it’s rarely difficult to reconcile.

When you can’t come to a meeting of the minds, remember the metaphor: It may be because you’re not operating on the same premises. If that’s the case, find a way to come together.

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Written by

Steve McKee

This smart looking guy is our agency’s president. When he’s not sitting in his not-so-oval office looking official, he’s busy writing books and winning awards for them.


Published on October 6th, 2017

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