Team hands teachersCompromise should be a resolution strategy of last resort, after everything else fails. But our so-called congressional leaders speak as if it were the gold standard of political skill.

INPowered leaders have a higher standard: collaboration.

Some don’t realize there is fundamental difference between the two. I recently heard one politician say that more collaboration was needed so a compromise could be reached. Right then I knew from the semantic garble that the outcome was in trouble.

Let me explain.

Earlier in my career I was on the administrative team at a large school district. Our teachers and support staff were affiliated with a union. Each year we negotiated the contract for the next school year. Since I was not in one of the represented groups, I served on the negotiating team for our board of education.

The first day of the negotiations the teachers’ team came in and laid their demands on the table that included a 30 percent across-the-board raise in salary. We asked why they thought they deserved such an increase. They replied indignantly, “Because we’re professionals.” Then they left the table in a huff.

The next session we asked them what they meant by, “professional.” They became even more indignant that we would even ask, and commented that they were the lowest paid teachers in the region and deserved to be treated more fairly. Then they left the table in a huff again.

If these negotiations followed the compromise trajectory, we would have offered a 5 percent raise; they would counter with 25 percent. Then we would have offered 7 percent; they would counter with 23 percent, and so on and so on, until we either compromised on a number or reached impasse and risked a strike.

Compromise is rooted in competition and debate in which the parties take a firm stand and duke it out until one or both relent and settle. Nothing really gets resolved. They just quit at some point, and live to fight another day. No one ever feels good about the result, or even hopeful that any effective solution will ever be reached. (Sound like our Congress?)

In the case of our contract negotiation with the teachers, we realized what the teachers were really saying was they did not feel respected as professionals and they saw the low salary as a reflection of the board’s attitude.

We realized we wanted the same thing as the teachers, professionalism and excellence in the classrooms. We studied what other professional organizations did to strive for excellence among their members. From that study, we fashioned an approach and presented our idea to the teachers to offer an excellence incentive for professional development outside their contracted work schedule, coupled with a modest across-the-board salary increase.

This approach got us into a collaborative discussion about their experiences, hopes, and dreams with the district. We opened the range of discussion and discovered several other issues relevant to the teachers that we could resolve without the need to negotiate them. We came up with creative approaches that would have never been possible had we resorted to the traditional offer-counter offer scenario of compromise.

The result was a successful settlement and a process that began to heal several years of wounds that had been inflicted during the negotiation process itself. In fact, the collaborative attitude carried forward outside the negotiation environment.

Collaboration begins with the attitude that win-win outcomes are possible if the parties take time to listen and understand from the other party’s perspective.

Collaboration involves revisiting the questions surrounding the core issues. It might be that we are debating the wrong question for the wrong reason.

Collaboration requires putting aside petty egos, power plays, and posturing to score political points with the core constituency.

Collaboration is about doing the real, hard, and gratifying work of making things better for everyone.

The real standard of leadership is one’s skill in collaborating. Collaborative leaders help us get places we cannot go by ourselves.

When I see someone reaching beyond the barriers of ideology and demagoguery to solve important problems, even risking personal popularity, I know I’m seeing someone who is
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