Published as ‘Lose the Battle to Win the War’ in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, 22 August 2008

A learned sage was in the middle of a very narrow bridge when he saw  a powerful king approaching from the other side. “Please turn around,” said Shakti-muni, “So that I may pass.”

“No, you turn around,” thundered the king, “So that I may pass.”

“But I stepped on the bridge first.”

“Yes, but I can push you back.”

“That’s not fair. Know that I am a teacher, a priest and the most respected philosopher in the land. Hence, I must be given the first right of passage.” Argued the sage

The king sneered, “I built the school you teach. I pay for the rituals you perform. Without me as patron, you would not be able to indulge in philosophy. So you must give me the first right of passage.”

So the arguments continued, each one refusing to give way to the other, each one justifying why the other should turn back. Finally, the king raised his whip and struck the sage. Furious, the sage cursed the king, “You have behaved like a demon, so may you turn into one.” Instantly, the king turned into a demon – a man-eating demon. He pounced on the sage, opened his mouth wide and ate him whole.

What mattered more – crossing the bridge or crossing the bridge first? Clearly the latter, for the sage. That is why, instead of simply turning back to make way for the bully king, he demanded first right of passage. The demand turned to insistence on moral, ethical and legal grounds. But what happened finally? The sage did not win the argument; he did not even get to cross the bridge; in the end, he was reduced to cannibal-fodder.
Sometimes in our obsession to be right, we lose sight of the goal and lose the game. What would have happened if he had allowed the king to pass? He would have been on the other side, alive, albeit a little late and with a dented ego. Would that have been so terrible? Though learned, the sage was not wise enough to realize, in the long run, being right does not matter; winning does.

We often fall into the trap of ‘wanting to be right’. Righteous indignation is a self-indulgent path, one that often distracts us from our destination. Somaraju realized this at the end of his quarterly business review.

Somaraju had not met his quarter’s target. The market had not responded as expected. He knew he could make up, even surpass, the half-yearly target, provided he got an increase on his promo budget. He entered the review meeting with all facts and figures to explain his proposal. He knew he had a fight on his hands, especially since there were rumours that the MD planned to rationalize and cut down the total promo budget altogether so as to meet the bottom-line target.

The meeting began well. After exchange of pleasantries, the power point was beamed on the white screen. The graphs were shown, the numbers were discussed and the explanations were offered. Somaraju was clearly well prepared and he could see that the management was quite pleased with the way he was putting forth his case. Suddenly the CFO said, “I don’t think you managed the hospital account well!’

Somaraju did not like this at all. The hospital account being referred to was an extremely difficult account to manage. And things had been made worse because the Finance Department had delayed some payments due to the party. “I don’t think so, sir,” said Somaraju sharply.

An argument followed with the CFO explaining why he felt the hospital account was not managed well and Somaraju refuting all that was being said. The scene got quite ugly. The CFO started pointing to the lackadaisical attitudes displayed by some of the sales guys. Somaraju retorted by accusing the Finance Department of sitting in an ivory tower with no clue as to what was happening in the real world out there.

After about fifteen minutes, the MD had had enough. “Can we get on with the presentation?” he asked. The CFO withdrew and Somaraju restarted. The energy had changed in the room. The focus was lost. Somaraju went into defensive overdrive explaining how every client was managed well. He oversold his case and only succeeded in making more and more people see  the CFO’s point of view. By the end of the meeting, not only was Somaraju’s promo budget cut, he got an impression that some of the management members felt he should be relieved of his portfolio. Somaraju returned to his cabin later that evening a dejected man. He even contemplated resigning.

What went wrong? The problem started when the CFO made a comment on hospital accounts. Somaraju had many options then – he could have agreed without being apologetic or defensive (“I know, sir, but please let me explain the situation), or he could have respectfully disagreed, (“I appreciate your opinion on the matter, but given the circumstances, I do believe our team has done a fairly good job”), or he could have enrolled the CFO (“I have been meaning to seek your advise on that account”), or he could have just side stepped it, smiling, not reacting and simply proceeding with the presentation. Instead he decided to confront the CFO. He got so allured by the desire to prove he was right that he forgot the reason he was in the meeting in the first place.

Sometimes, when one finds oneself on a narrow bridge with an opponent on the other side, it helps to ask what matters more – getting the other to turn around or getting oneself across the bridge.

Does this mean to win one must never try to be right? No, it does not mean that. Winning is one thing, being right is another thing. We must not confuse issues.  It is possible to win and be right. But when the choice is between winning and being right, one needs to choose wisely. More often than not, we prefer being right because it pampers the ego in the short-term. In the long-term, however, winning yields better results.