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Think like a Game Theorist: The Science of Winning Professional Conflicts

Should you compromise or should you stand your ground?
by Caitlin Schiller | Mar 12 2015
When it comes to office conundrums, it can be particularly hard to find a clear answer –  until now. Here’s how Game Theory can help you resolve professional conflicts with minimal damage.

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “conflict?” Perhaps it’s skirmishes on foreign shores or historical wars of bygone years, but the kind of conflict you’re most likely to encounter on a daily basis is in the workplace.

Whether you’ve employed an intern that’s more proficient on Facebook than Excel, or somebody’s pinched your golden idea for a pitch, you’re bound to run into conflict over something. Certainly, clashes can lead to healthy competition and even better understanding, but they can also result in a loss of confidence in your abilities, embarrassment, or even getting fired. So how can you make sure you’re fighting a better battle? Archaeologist and historian Ian Morris’s book War! What is it Good For? suggests that Game Theory might do the trick.

Game theorists (also known as decision theorists) search for patterns that illustrate whether it’s better to go for peaceful compromise or direct confrontation. Utilizing a points system, they calculate the potential outcomes of conflicts with different opponents. Your busy workday likely doesn’t permit the implementation of so exacting a system, so here are the three Game-Theorist-approved commandments for picking your battles, straight from Ian Morris’s book.

1. Know your environment

Morris explains that typically, you’re going to be surrounded by two types of people: peace-seeking Doves, or battle-ready Hawks. How things shake out, whether in compromise or confrontation, will depend largely on how well you understand your social environment.

Game theorists hold that if you’re in a workplace where everyone is always looking for a peaceful solution, the hawks, who stand their ground, will emerge victorious. And it works the other way round as well. In a workplace packed with birds of prey, those who are peaceful and make compromises often emerge victorious. Follow your instinct, and not necessarily the majority.

2. Know the potential consequences

You’ve all heard this before: consider the consequences of your actions! Game Theorists certainly do. They work out how much there is to win and lose in both peaceful and aggressive approaches to conflict, and this applies to your workplace battles as well. For example – could taking a hard stance irrevocably affect your reputation amongst your peers? Then perhaps it’s best to think twice about that tack. Might opting for a peaceful compromise get you more credibility amongst upper management, even if you’re more inclined to fight? If you’re in line for a promotion, playing dove might do you better.

3. Know your opponent

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” may be cliche, and enemy may be a slight exaggeration, but the message is this: you must know your opponent and work out how much this conflict means to them. Then, you can decide whether to don your armor or doff your cap.

Is your office a battleground for the ages? Then, check out Ian Morris’s War! What is it Good For? to discover how you can escape the workplace battles with zero career damage.

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