Dilemma Reconciliation

Dilemma Reconciliation

“The art of combining opposites”

The challenges for company boards have never been greater: the global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising energy costs, rising interest rates, changes to markets around the world, changes to working practices including the move toward hybrid working, the drive to become more green and carbon neutral, I could go on. 

With these as backdrop it may seem that many of the business objectives that shareholders and other stakeholders expect, e.g., good profit returns and increased shareholder value, are at odds with the need to invest, including in new carbon neutral technologies and new markets despite all of the restrictions placed on business.

To take just one example — the need to cut costs may be met in part through management’s encouragement of more remote or hybrid working, thus dropping the cost of office rentals and lessening travel inefficiencies, whilst however being mindful of the need to guard against employee isolation and, if possible, to increase collaboration and motivation of staff within the organisation.

We are faced with apparent dilemmas every day and our instinct is to find a compromise, a middle ground that will attempt to make the best of a difficult situation. Thinking about the dilemmas we face reminded me of a course that I attended many, many years ago while working for IBM. The course was created and run by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. It was called Dilemma Reconciliation.

The two men’s views on dilemmas have stuck with me over all of the passing years and can be found here: https://www.thtconsulting.com/models/dilemma-thinking/

In this article they ask:


It’s not either/or/and . . .  

The word “Dilemma” in Greek is defined as “two propositions in conflict”. We talk about a dilemma when we seem to come across a difficult choice which has to be made between two opposing options, both having interesting advantages. Our extensive research conducted globally has found that it is possible to deal with seemingly opposing options successfully. The key is reconciliation, the art of combining opposites.

I would recommend reading the article in full as it goes further than just articulating the problem; it suggests a different approach to managing dilemmas. The course that I attended covered the authors’ “THE DILEMMA RECONCILIATION PROCESS”.

Another deep thinker on management and conflict issues, the Maltese doctor Edward de Bono, introduced the concept of Lateral Thinking or not always going down the usual path when looking at a problem or forming new ideas. Dilemma Reconciliation suggests that traditional thinking of compromise, where in essence you are trying to find a middle ground, does in reality mainly deliver a sub-optimal solution for all parties involved.

Why did I find this approach so interesting, so appealing? Well mainly anything that stops us from assuming that what we did before will work equally well going forward is probably a good thing, or at least will make us pause and look at things afresh.

In this next article Fons Trompenaars gives an interesting example which takes us into how problems and dilemmas are handled differently in different cultures:

— Fons Trompenaars on CultureLab
agabajer.com — 

The example he gives is:

Imagine that you are in a car, driven by a close friend of yours. She’s speeding, going 50 mph in an area where the limit is just 30 mph. And suddenly she hits a pedestrian. After the incident, your friend’s lawyer reassures you: “There were no other witnesses – if you swear under oath, your friend will be free.”

Two questions:

1. What right does your friend have to expect you to lie to protect them?

a) definite right
b) some right
c) no right

2. Would you lie or not?

Just take a minute to answer these questions before you read on.


Ok, let’s keep going,

What you’ve just experienced is a dilemma.

While a problem is something that can be easily solved if we have enough resources (such as money or time), a dilemma is much trickier.

This is how Fons defines a dilemma:

A dilemma is having two things that are important to us and feeling like we have to sacrifice one over the other. In this case, the two things are friendship and truth.

The way we tend to resolve the dilemmas in our lives is often driven by our national culture.

Fons’ research indicates that the majority of Italians or Chinese would decide to help their friend, Germans would opt for being truthful, whereas the Americans . . . would say the truth – but promise to visit their friend in jail!

Fons says:

Company culture is the end result of conflicting values, where one value dominates its opposite – often at a cost of performance. A few examples of such conflicting values are:

         • accountability vs teamwork
         • prudence vs ambition
         • hierarchy vs holacracy

We are faced with dilemmas almost every day and maybe, just maybe, the way we have been approaching them can be changed and improved.

We need to work harder, better and differently in resolving today’s dilemmas. Becoming comfortable with dilemmas as part of everyday life and business may make us, as individuals and collectively as boards, better able to resolve them in everybody’s best interests.

One of the big takeaways from the second article, for me, is that culture plays a big part in how we approach challenges and maybe larger multinational organisations should be a little more aware of the cultural differences within their organisations.

If this area is of interest to you I would recommend a couple of books by Fons Trompenaars:
Building Cross-Cultural Competence: How to Create Wealth from Conflicting Values

Riding the Waves of Culture