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Win/Win Solutions – The Role of Collaboration in Resolving Problems

Popular literature in the areas of leadership, management, organizational change, and personal/professional development frequently advocates for collaboration and win/win solutions when dealing with differences and solving problems. Some authors would suggest that we should always pursue this method of interacting. While collaboration is a desirable goal and has many positive aspects it may not always be the best approach to achieving desired outcomes. Understanding the role of collaboration in resolving problems can help to determine when to use this particular approach.

Collaboration = Win/Win

Collaboration is described as being a win/win agreement because both parties come out of the engagement completely satisfied with the resolution or outcome. It is an integrative process which may involve a synergy of ideas, beliefs, and feelings resulting in an optimal outcome. Stephen Covey, in his highly acclaimed book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, describes win/win as a “frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions. Win/Win means agreements or solutions are mutually beneficial, mutually satisfying. With a Win/Win solution, all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena.” (page 207)

Our propensity to be competitive hinders efforts to interact collaboratively. Competitiveness may be instinctual and is certainly reinforced in children as they vie for position, approval and success in their family, in school, and in non-academic endeavors such as sports, music, and even video games. As adults we also find ourselves believing that being competitive will bring us achievement and success. Our litigious society suggests that people think that they need to challenge others and resolve problems by using confrontational procedures such as grievances and law suits. These social dynamics often discourage inclinations toward collaboration – which is the opposite of competing.

Striving for collaboration requires a mature, open-minded perspective that believes in the “greater good”, in the abundance mentality – that there is enough for everyone, and that more can be gained from cooperation than from competing. A disagreement that starts with sides in opposition to each other can result in constructive agreements when the parties involved choose to work together to find a solution. The parties must move beyond their emotional drive to compete and win at the expense of the other. Collaboration is often the approach taken in mediation and sometimes in negotiation. However collaboration is not easy. Effective collaboration may require extensive investments of time, effort, perseverance, creative thinking, and open communication.

Collaboration is not the same as cooperation, though these terms are often used interchangeably in literature regarding methods of effectively working together. Cooperation suggests that those involved choose to interact in a supportive and helpful manner. That in itself is not collaboration. Cooperation can be a dynamic in three of the Thomas-Kilmann conflict modes – collaborating, compromising and accommodating. It is not an element of the other two conflict styles – competing and avoiding. Therefore individuals may demonstrate cooperation when they are in the process of compromising to reach a “middle ground”. One party may also cooperate when he/she chooses to acquiesce and accommodate to the desires of the other because the issue is not worth struggling over. Neither of these forms of cooperation are collaboration as the outcomes are not win/win.

Effective Use of Collaboration

Collaboration is high in assertiveness and high in cooperation working best when the issues at stake, and the quality of the relationships, are important to both parties. This can occur in personal or family problems, workplace interactions, and business contracts. Due to the amount of time, effort, trust, and cooperation involved in this process it is usually only recommended when the nature of the problem is considered to be highly important. When this is not the case other forms of conflict resolution – competing, compromise, accommodating, or avoiding – may be more appropriate and successful.

A willingness to trust and openly listen to alternative ideas and views is essential for collaboration to be successful. Participants must be focused on an outcome that is desirable for all concerned and not just on their individual goals. Efforts by participants to support and confront proposals with integrity and respect can create an atmosphere that will ultimately result in an outcome that everyone can actively support. Sometimes it is helpful to have an independent third party facilitator to manage this process and constructively move it forward.

Techniques and skills that facilitate collaboration will enhance the success of this process. Consider use of the following:

  • Clarification that the parties involved have an interest in using a collaborative process to work out the problem
  • Ensuring that there is adequate time and appropriate space for the meeting(s)
  • Stating the situation as a mutual problem
  • Avoidance of personal criticism and blame
  • A willingness to be flexible and open minded in search of the best solution
  • Brainstorming and “out of the box” thinking to facilitate new ideas and options
  • Reflective listening in which each party paraphrases what they hear the other saying
  • Use of the word “we” instead of “I” to demonstrate mutuality
  • Courage to assertively identify and address personal feelings about the matter
  • Identification of multiple ideas and options for consideration
  • Clarification of the mutual benefits of potential solutions
  • Provision of time for parties to take ideas back for reflection and discussion with stakeholders
  • A commitment to resolution and action based on the decision or outcome
The benefits to collaboration include:
  • Sincerity in efforts to clearly present and actively listen to ideas
  • Objective assessment of pros and cons
  • Mutual learning
  • Growth in understanding and appreciation of differing perspectives
  • Synergy resulting from combined information and efforts
  • A deepening of respect and strengthening of relationships
  • Decisions and results that are of high quality
  • Commitment to the outcomes

The Collaboration Conflict Mode and Myers-Briggs Type Preferences

Individuals who show a preference for using collaboration based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument tend to have scores as Extroverted-Feeling-Judging (E_FJ) on their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® profile. Why do we tend to see this pattern? Let’s briefly examine each of the Myers-Briggs dichotomies and relate them to the use of collaboration as a form of conflict resolution.

Extroversion/Introversion (E/I): Extroverted people are more likely than Introverts to be comfortable discussing and working out disagreements. They are more inclined to share their thoughts and feelings in open discussion. Introverted individuals tend to be more reserved and are more likely to avoid, accommodate, or compromise in dealing with problems when they have these choices. Therefore Extroverted individuals will be more inclined then Introverts to pursue the rigors of collaboration.

Sensing/Intuition (S/N): The Sensing/iNtuition dichotomy does not seem to be a significant factor in the desire to be collaborative. Both perspectives are valuable in working collaboratively. Sensing helps to assess the current status and details while iNtuition will contribute to looking at a future picture and its complexities.

Feeling/Thinking (F/T): Individuals who have a Feeling perspective tend to be more focused on the impact of outcomes and may be more open to new ideas if they can determine that the effect will be positive. They desire the win/win solution as this has the opportunity to satisfy the needs of both parties which meets their desire for harmony. Thinking types are more inclined to hold firm to their position based on data or facts and will utilize competing and compromise more often than collaboration. They are less influenced by the impact that the outcome will have on those involved and may not be as receptive to change that will benefit the other party, preferring to compete or compromise.

Judging/Perceiving (J/P): People with an MBTI preference for Judging have an interest in working for resolution as opposed to the Perceiver who may be more inclined to delay or avoid dealing with the problem. When a person with a Judging preference determines that collaboration is the most effective process for reaching the best outcome they will actively engage in this plan. They are more likely than Perceivers to commit to implementing the outcome and take the steps necessary for this to occur.


Collaboration, with a win/win outcome, is the ideal method to use in working out disagreements and problems that are important to both parties. The collaboration process frequently results in growth in knowledge, respect, and understanding between the parties involved. Sometimes the synergy from shared investment creates outcomes that are better than either party would have achieved via other methods of conflict resolution. When there is mutual satisfaction with both the process and the outcome the likelihood of productive implementation of decisions and plans is greatly increased. However keep in mind that collaboration is not the best approach to solving all types of problems. Ensure that the situation at hand is important enough to warrant the investment that is required for the use of collaboration. When it is, go for the win/win!


Dale Eilerman

Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance.  He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation.  Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning… MORE >

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