How do you lead through situations when it feels like everything is a no-win scenario? No-win scenarios are tough, sure, but they’re also a chance to distinguish yourself, learn people’s trust, and for innovation.
In today’s episode, get seven steps you can use to approach these circumstances that will help you build your credibility and sleep well at night.
How Leaders Can Find the Win in No-Win Scenarios
What do you do when you’re faced with a couple of outcomes you intensely dislike, a no-win scenario? Hey, it’s David and you’re listening to leadership without losing your soul, your source for practical leadership, inspiration tools, and strategies you can use to achieve transformational results without sacrificing your humanity or your mind in the process.
Welcome to the show today. We’re talking about no-win scenarios. How do you lead through those situations? When it feels like everything is just, it’s a no-win. I don’t like any of these outcomes. They all stink. Well, before we dive in, I hope you had a chance to listen to the last week’s episode where we were talking about Tomorrow Together. That’s my new book that’s out now and I encourage you to take a listen. We’ll be sharing some more of those essays and concepts going forward this season. And you can find tomorrow together just about anywhere books are sold, Amazon, your E-readers, Kindle, all those good things.
So today talking about no-win scenarios, no-win scenarios are tough. Sure. But they’re also a chance to distinguish yourself, learn people’s trust, and for innovation. And there are seven different ways that you can approach these circumstances that will help you build your credibility and sleep well at night.
This question about no-win scenarios actually came from one of our global leadership development participants. This participant was facing a challenging product request that he believed would either overtax his team or disappoint the client. And he concluded his question by asking about no-win scenarios specifically by asking what is your Kobiashi Maru? Well, that phrase might not make sense to you unless you’re a fan of Star Trek. It’s a classic Star Trek reference to no-win scenarios. It’s a no-win scenario that everyone in star fleet academy would face. So, if you’re a student in star fleet, they give you the scenario in the simulator where you receive a distress call from a damaged ship. A ship that’s stranded in enemy space. If you choose to ignore it, everybody on that ship dies. If you choose to attempt the rescue, you’re going to risk your ship and crew. And in the actual test, if you attempt the rescue it’s met with an overwhelming enemy force and captain Kirk is the only one to have beaten the scenario.
If you haven’t seen that part of the series, spoiler warning, on his third attempt at that scenario he reprogrammed the simulation and that’s how he beat it with a famous line, “I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.” So let’s talk about no-win scenarios in business. Now you might not have to rescue a damaged ship, but if you leave long enough and you are certainly going to face situations where you don’t like the alternatives, the circumstances can feel like no-win scenarios. And you know, we’ve had many in our careers, just a few examples. I remember a time I was facing a choice of decreasing insurance benefits or eliminating positions, taking a promotion with the explicit task of closing job sites and laying off people, overworking staff to keep someone else’s misguided promises, or being told to fire someone who’s been loyal to the company and worked hard to qualify for their next role. Relying on a brilliant jerk who gets results and has protective relationships with senior leaders, but makes life hell for their team. Those are just a few examples, I’m sure you could add to the list.
The critical factor is that you face outcomes that feel equally miserable, unfair, or wrong. And sometimes it’s not just that they feel that way they might objectively be unfair or wrong. So how do you lead through no-win scenarios? It begins by understanding that these moments can switch us into a victim mode and to lead well you have to re-empower yourself and your team to get out of that victim mentality. Captain Kirk rejected the no-win scenario. Reprogramed the scenario of the simulation. How do you do that yourself?
There are a number of different ways that you can also find a win for you your team and for your customers. The first number one, reframe the problem. Reframing is a powerful mental technique that allows you to see a situation differently. There’s a natural tendency that we have as human beings to drop into either-or thinking. So it often looks like either this horrible outcome or that miserable one and reframing can help expand your thinking to avoid getting stuck that way. One of the easiest ways to visualize what reframing is all about is if you look at a picture in one frame, let’s say it’s a pure white frame. Take that same picture and put it in a different frame. Maybe something that’s deep blue and your perception of the picture will change. The blue frame will bring out the blues in the picture and might even give it a calmer feel whereas the white frame can give it more contrast and an energetic feel.
That’s literally what reframing can look like. To reframe a problem, you choose to look at it differently. And there are a number of different ways you can do this. You can ask questions, like, is there a better problem to solve than the one that you first perceived? Are you looking at the real problem or is there a root cause? And this is a common one. So often we’re trying to solve a problem by getting people to work harder or, you know, bang their head against a piece of software or a process that’s not working when the real solution, the reframe here is what can we fix to make this better and eliminate having to solve this problem in the first place? Another question, what does success really look like? Clarify the outcomes that would feel good. They’re not always the outcomes that we first assume.
Is there an alternative path to achieve success once you’ve taken a different look at what outcomes are available, what are the different paths that might be available to get there? Sometimes just the act of looking at a challenging situation, through a different frame, can re-energize you and start to reveal solutions. So that’s reframing.
The second suggestion is a way of reframing, but also it’s a way to uncover alternative paths and opportunities. And this is our Own the UGLY technique. So, when yo face no-win scenarios, to reexamine, use U.G.L.Y. as an acronym. If you’ve listened to the show for a while, you will have heard this in a previous episode. This is really powerful to do with your team or you can do this by yourself. It’s even more powerful to have a discussion with a group of people.
U. What are we underestimating? That is what resources have we not considered? What headwinds are we not considering? Maybe what’s changed in our environment.
G. What’s gotta go. What are we doing that no longer makes sense? What is it? That’s more habit than value. What’s wasting time. Can we remove needless outcome processes or criteria that can help us to be remarkable?
L. where are we losing? Are we genuinely underperforming? And if so, where, if not, what’s causing the perception, are we losing ground somewhere? How and why? Where are we missing?
The Y stands for Yes. What are the opportunities hiding in plain sight? Are there different paths to success that we haven’t tried or considered? What new opportunities exist that we didn’t have before? A team discussion of those four questions can quickly help you and your team find a new way forward.
Number three, collaborate when you’re facing what feels like a no-win situation. It can often be the case that a problem for your group might be an opportunity for someone else. One of the most overlooked ways to lead through these kinds of situations is collaboration. Is there someone with a complimentary problem to yours? Do you have a solution they can use? For example, if you have a short-term loss in demand, rather than lay people off, is there a short-term labor need elsewhere in your organization, or maybe even in another business that you can collaborate with?
Number four, win with values. There are times when the choice you face is truly unjust and there is no easy answer in these situations. What are your values? What matters most and how can you live out those values? Sometimes that’s the best win in a no-win scenario. One of my favorite examples of choosing values is from the movie Glory, about the set during the civil war and Matthew Broderick plays the role of Colonel Shaw, who is asked to lead one of the first regiments of African American soldiers for the union. And it follows his journey and the soldier’s journeys. He ultimately is leading his men with dignity, and he genuinely cares for his troops, but there is at one point in the story this time where he receives orders to have his men set fire to a town. And that’s an unlawful order. Well, the commanding officer who gave him that order is not a good guy. He mistreats his soldiers, disrespects them, he even shoots one of his own men.
Shaw protests and says, no, I’m not going to follow that order. It’s unlawful. I’m not going to have my men burn the town. Well, his commanding officer says, all right, listen, you can either follow through with the order or you can protest it through normal channels. If you protest it, you’ll be relieved to duty while it’s processing through and your men will be transferred to me and I’ll happily take them well. And what’s implied is that they would certainly face mistreatment. Needless cruelty. Now Shaw is facing what really is a no-win scenario. He can follow this unlawful order, or he is going to turn his men over to this creep. Well, he finally chooses to care for his men and he orders them to burn the town and they do it with as much order and dignity as they can no extra damage to any of the civilians. But that is a hard choice and it’s an example of finding a win within your values. When you face a decision where there truly are limited outcomes and they all stink, what are your most important values for Shaw? It was the dignity and care of his men. It was a hard choice and it did real damage to the town and the people who lost their homes. That was the choice he could live with.
Number five is choosing a different timeframe. One way to find the win in a no-win scenario is to focus on the bigger picture. What’s the longer term, because in the short term the options that you’re looking at may be distasteful, but is there a path that helps you and your team achieve your longer-term goals? Sometimes this can play out in interpersonal relationships where the long-term relationship matters more than fighting for a win in the short term, at the expense of the other person’s dignity or their relational capital. And in other scenarios, looking at the bigger picture can give you a foundation for re-negotiating terms. You can go back to the other person or people and emphasize what matters most to them, to your supervisor, your customer, and your partners, as you’re working through potential solutions. So focusing on the long term instead of the immediate that’s right in front of you is another way to find a win.
Number six, take action. Once you’ve reflected, you’ve reframed, you’ve centered yourself in your values. It’s time to act, and understand your information’s never going to be perfect. The scenarios are never going to play out perfectly, but informed action builds momentum and that commitment to action also energizes and empowers you and your team. You’re not sitting there as a hapless victim of circumstance.
As I’ve been thinking about this topic of no-win scenarios and the choice between evils, uh, there’s the May West actress, May West said when choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before. That’s tongue and cheek, and it’s funny, but the point is to take action, to try and that act of taking a step forward empowers, and we’re going to learn something from it in the process.
Finally, number seven, sometimes you need to leave. There are times when no-win scenarios you face are immoral illegal or unethical to such an extent that you really are better off finding another place to work. And while that’s not all the time, it is a possibility and it’s something to be aware of.
And so that question about no-win scenarios came from one of our global leadership development program participants, and he asked it through the program and I would love to answer one of your leadership or management-related questions. You can send those to me at [email protected]
Or you can go to leadership without losing your soul.com and there’s a big orange button you can click and record your question. Love to answer those for you. And as always, if you’re enjoying the show, I love to get your reviews, have you share it with other managers and leaders in your life who could use practical human-centered leadership tools and strategies. All right. So those no-win scenarios, yes, they can demotivate you, they can upset morale if you let them, or you can get creative to tap into your values and empower your team for a strategic future until next time be the leader, you’d want your boss to be.