The Term "Win-Win" in Conflict Management: A Classic Case of Misuse and Overuse. (Commentary)

Article excerpt

Words evolve in their usage and meaning over time, but few words in the business language have changed as much as the term "win-win." Once confined to the literature on conflict management, the term has been co-opted in the trade press and often used incorrectly in place of the term "compromise." This etymological study traces the lineage of the term from its appearance in the academic literature in the 1970s to its proliferation in the trade press beginning in the early 1980s. Two interpretative errors are described and the effects of these errors on the meaning of the term are detailed.

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In the children's fairy tale, "Through the Looking Glass," Humpty Dumpty tells Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." And so it goes with the jargon of business, creating different definitions to suit its needs. Thus, what we speak may not be actually what we mean, creating a situation that, at best, confuses the sincere listener and, at worst, obscures reality. One particular example of a chameleon business term is "win-win," which first appeared in the literature in the 1970s. While words evolve in their usage and meaning, the term "win-win" has had a particularly unusual evolution. Indeed, over time "win-win" has been co-opted to the point that in its current usage the term now means nearly the opposite of its original definition, thus causing the term to lose its linguistic impact. Since 20% of a manager's time is spent managing conflict (De Dreu et al., 2001), precision in communication is imperative.

The present commentary traces the lineage "win-win" from its appearance in the academic literature in the 1970s to its proliferation in the trade press beginning in the early 1980s. Two interpretative errors, the Wissman Paradox and the Green Conundrum, are described and the effects of these errors on the meaning of the term are detailed.

Historical Roots and Lineage "Win-Win"

Conflict management is most often examined as a dyadic process between individuals or groups of individuals that is cyclical in nature without intervention (Pondy, 1967; Walton, 1969). Various diagnostic models using idiosyncratic terminology have been advanced to explain conflict management. One of the most researched diagnostic models is the Process Model, which outlines steps or events that occur during a conflict episode. The stages of the Process Model include frustration, conceptualization of issues, triggering event(s) that lead to some behavior, interaction, and aftermath or consequences (Pondy, 1967; Walton, 1969). In addition, the concept of "win-win" fits into three areas: conceptualization, behavior, and interaction.

Conceptualization refers to the cognitive processes of defining conflict (e.g., magnitude, stakes, boundaries) as well as the perception of alternatives and their outcomes, which are limited in number and often idiosyncratic to the situation and the parties involved. From this, the behaviors and interactions ensue. Thomas (1976, p. 900), expanding on the seminal work of Galtung (1965) as well as Blake and Mouton (1964) and Blake et al. (1964), projected five conflict management styles on a graphic "joint outcome space" that frame the general alternatives in the interaction stage as noted in Figure 1.

The Competitive and Accommodative styles represent "either-or," "win-lose," or "fixed-sum" scenarios that use either domination or appeasement as their primary behaviors. Both styles are representative of distributive bargaining situations in which the positions of the conflicting parties are mutually exclusive (Blake, Shepard, & Mouton, 1964), and thus, "there is pure competition for some limited value" (Walton & McKersie, 1965, p. 4) or a perceived "economics of scarcity" (Blake et al., 1964, p. 45). The Avoidant style, characterized by neglectful behavior, represents a stalemate or a situation that cannot be resolved. …