Is Compromise a Dirty Word?


With the resignation of Theresa May and the European elections, it’s impossible to start this week’s post anywhere other than in the corridors of power. 

Obviously I’m being sarcastic when I use the word ‘power.’ If anyone is in power in the UK – or has the slightest idea what’s going on, or what is likely to happen – then please let me know. 

Like everyone else in the business community I am tempted to have an 800 word rant about our politicians. The words ‘whelk’ and ‘stall’ would feature. As would a celebration in a brewery. But, I must remember I’m an adult. So what business insights can we rescue from the ashes? 

One comment – which I have edited slightly so as not to offend you, gentle reader – summed up the current malaise: 

Having got into this mess because of dithering, they are now dithering over who is going to oversee the next bout of dithering. 

In her farewell speech Theresa May clearly did not see it as dithering. She made much of the need to compromise and – apparently quoting a late constituent – said, “Compromise is not a dirty word.” 

Is that right? After all, our other female Prime Minister had a rather different view: “If you spend too long in the middle of the road you’ll be hit by traffic coming in both directions.”

So what’s the position in business? Is compromise the answer? Or is Theresa May wrong and ‘compromise’ really is a dirty word. 

In the early days of this blog I would occasionally write that ‘the job of a leader is to lead.’ Now – especially when I’m discussing politics – I seem to write it in every other post. 

But it is – and sometimes leadership makes compromise impossible. Stephen King may have been talking about his writing but the comment applies equally to a business leader: ‘You cannot please all the people all the time. You cannot even please all the people some of the time. The best you can hope for is to please some of the people, some of the time.’ 

So do real leaders ever compromise? 

Of course they do. Sometimes there’s a completely stalled situation which can only be solved by a compromise. Sometimes feelings are so entrenched that you need a compromise to allow both sides to save face and – at least in the short term – lower unrealistic expectations. And sometimes you just need a short-term win, something that will increase motivation and create some mutual trust. 

But in my experience, solutions that come through compromise are rarely long-term or lasting. By definition, a compromise is not a clear vision. It is rarely greeted with enthusiasm by either side. And the problems you solved with the compromise always seem to have a way of creeping back. 

If real leaders do compromise, they always do it from a position of strength. They do not walk into a negotiation and say, ‘We’re prepared to give in on this, this and this. Now can we compromise?’ 

So where does all this leave our politicians and – by extension – the country they are supposed to be governing? 

I don’t often read Conservative Home, but MEP Daniel Hannan summarises the current Catch-22 very neatly: ‘We (the Conservatives) cannot face the electorate before leaving the EU. But we might not be able to leave the EU without an election.’ 

What he doesn’t say, of course, is that if last Thursday’s results were repeated in a General Election, it would be Prime Minister Farage taking the UK out of the EU. 

When a business is in trouble – and the Conservative Party is a business, whose aim is to win elections – then it needs immediate action.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re not going to get. No new leader chosen until July, everyone on holiday in August, the party conference season… 

There will be barely five weeks to negotiate any deal, always assuming that the EU is prepared to move from its current, very entrenched, position of ‘no renegotiation.’ 

I wrote about Theresa May and her indecision on Friday 22ndMarch. At that time everything was going to be settled by June 30th. Now we’re looking at a date four months after that, with every possibility that the Hallowe’en deadline will be extended. 

That’s a dreadful failure of management and competence. But above all it is a stark illustration of what happens when a leader fails to lead and fails to communicate a vision. 

Somehow, from somewhere a leader has to emerge. He or she will have to take some very tough decisions. And compromise – the desire to please all the people – will need to be the first casualty. 

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