10 JULY, 2016

The False Paradox Between Selfishness and Caring

Smart selfishness at least!

If you think it’s impossible to be both a caring negotiator and a selfish one, think again!

For a wise negotiator, there is no paradox between the two. If you want to get more for your organization or yourself, then it helps to spend time figuring out what the other party wants and helping them where it benefits you too.  If you want to be caring, then be honest about your concerns so that they can be too. Great negotiation is about moving forward through a series of steps in which the benefits to all parties are seen as growing.

To move past the false paradox of selfishness and caring requires some fundamental changes in your assumptions. First, we see the choice between caring and selfish as either/or because we assume the other person is one or the other. If they are selfish, then we must either choose to be nice (thus preserving the relationship) or combative (thus protecting our wants). If they are nice, then the opposite happens: accept their kind offer or argue pleasantly with them about who gets to give up something for the other.

Now imagine that the other person, me in this case, is both selfish and caring. First, I want to get the best result possible for my organization. Second, with this new attitude I also want you to get a really good result too. I’m not being nice just to improve our relationship. Quite selfishly, I also want you to consider this new idea I have which will increase my profit. I know that you are more likely to do so if the same deal has some (caring) measures that increase your benefits too. Likewise, I also want you to be as committed to implementing the agreement as I am. (Many agreements are broken because one party no longer sees value in it.)

Let’s take this farther. As a smart negotiator, I know that it’s easier to find a good deal when I have more information about what you can give. I also know that you are more likely to share that information when you believe the quality of your outcome also matters to me. And you are even more likely to share that information with me when I likewise share my real concerns and wants. Ironically, if I am transparently selfish in presenting what I really want (as opposed to the typical prepared positions that focus on telling others why they want my position while hiding my real wants and concerns), I make room for you to express your selfish desires.

Ironically, the selfish-caring is even more important in intra-team group work. When interacting with other members of the same group, people usually avoid any appearance of selfishness (or negotiation) because that would be against the “group interest.” The ironic paradox here is that hiding your interests stops others from doing the same. In other words, your “caring” sacrifice for the group’s sake actually makes your partners’ situation worse! The worst part is that the group then spends lots of time pursuing the “group’s interests,” which is usually vague or even undefined because no one has shared their real wants and concerns.

This is why students in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy once designed a commemorative T-shirt with the logo, “Death by Group Work.”

So, if you care about your partners, be selfish so that they can be too and so that you can all get to the business of “squeezing every last bit of value” from your cooperation. And if you’re selfish, try spending a little time to learn about and take care of the other people’s interests so that you can get more information on the table and have partners who are more willing to listen to your ideas about how you (and they) can get more value.