If You Can't Grow the Pie, Tread with Caution

I am a pretty open book. I think if you met me you would see quickly that my agenda is to “grow the pie”* of opportunity, not necessarily take more slices than you. I think it makes a lot of people uncomfortable or skeptical. I don’t know if it has made me a stronger leader yet because the world can be pretty unforgiving if you don’t look out for #1. I’ve tried to live my life with a “grow the pie” strategy but it’s really hard. Why?

Not everybody wants to grow the pie. Some people believe strongly that they need to operate in a zero sum framework (The pie is fixed and I will fight for what I need until I’m satisfied . You can have what is leftover). You see this all the time in personal and business relationships and it stinks. It may be economically rational in the short term but jeopardizes long term relationships.

People are skeptical. Have you ever noticed when you let someone borrow something or you give in on a particular discussion that they become skeptical that you have an alternative motive? “Why would you do that? What’s your angle? This is going to come back to bite me isn’t it?” This fear also really stinks. It’s unproductive. I once had a meeting where the guy said, “Let’s grab lunch and spend some time lying to each other.” It actually took me awhile to process that but his attitude was that basically people put on a front that is driven by their agenda and will say what they need to say to move that agenda forward.

We are animals at the core. We may have migrated in packs but at the end of the day we are animals that compete for food, for mates, for territory. That is how we have survived this long. The nicest animals in the jungle often starve or get eaten. You can’t dismiss evolution.

I am also willing to recognize that maybe I am too willing too quickly to create a win-win before we’ve done the “dance” of positioning our respective strengths and values. Maybe there is a better strategy where I should be less conciliatory at first but come around once I have drawn in the other person to really want what I have rather than collaborating early to determine if our goals are aligned. 

I have had some issues come up recently that have made me self-reflect. It made me question whether my model of willingness to create a win-win is trumped by “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. I will write a post on the circumstances of this in the near future but suffice it to say that yes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease (in the short term).

The best solution is to avoid surrounding yourself with squeaky wheels. The problem is that you don’t always know who they are (because there are no squeaks in a new car) which makes it really hard to be prescriptive on the tell-tale signs to consider (unless they give it away by saying things like “It’s not personal. It’s just business”). I think it’s easier to know who they aren’t. Here is my filter:

1. Self Reflection: Do these people share experiences that show they learned something about themselves? Are they willing to acknowledge a situation arose where they might have contributed to a less than ideal outcome?

2. Vulnerability: Are these individuals willing to ask questions to gain clarity and understanding rather than gloss over a point for the fear of looking “stupid”? Do these individuals share something about themselves where you look at them in the eye and see who they really are?

3. Willingness to Listen: Do these people ask questions and give you the space to answer? Do they listen with intent rather than thinking about the next thing they are going to say to sound smart?

4. Thinking Long Term: Are you able to talk beyond the immediate business relationship and what the longer term goals are? Is there a different way to frame the opportunity (and in fact, grow the pie) but contemplating a relationship to extend over multiple business or personal dealings?

5. Wanting to Know You Beyond the Business Terms: Break bread. I’m a big fan of breaking bread (have a meal). I also think it is a strong signal if you meet their spouse or members of the family. Barriers are broken when someone gives you a lens into the lives of their loved ones.

6. No One is “Selling”: Your best “deals” will come when you aren’t even selling. If someone is selling you (which you can tell) then your radar should be way up.

I am much more attuned to finding these people now and really grateful when I do. I tell them that I’m grateful. I look them in the eye and thank them. I care about them and their success. It makes me happy. It makes me confident that I will make an impact because I’m not going to be isolated on an island long term.

My advice is find these people and build a lasting relationship. Tell them that you care and you are invested in mutual success. Be real and you will be rewarded many times over. I’d love to hear your stories of “growing the pie”!

*grow the pie is the concept that there is not a fixed outcome but that there are a range of bigger and better outcomes achievable if people are willing to collaborate on goals and objectives.

Russell Benaroya