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

By McNary, Lisa D. | The Journal of Business Communication, April 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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


McNary, Lisa D., The Journal of Business Communication


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.

**********

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?