Magnanimity – or, why giving is better than giving-up

Many years ago, during my BA studies I took a course in Industrial Relations. The professor talked

about the irrational unavoidability of strikes in most societies. Think about it – the labour union comes up with extreme demands, the owners refuse, and a strike ensues. Then negotiations start and after a while (and very high costs of lost business or denial of services in the public sector) a solution is found, somewhere in the middle.

Wouldn’t it have made much more sense to have had these negotiations instead of the strike and not after it? Unfortunately, in our confrontational society the ground is not set to compromise before blood (virtual or literal) is shed.

In the same lecture the professor told us about how they strike in Japan - he said workers come to work wearing a badge that says, “I am on strike”. Management understand that there is a problem, negotiations follow, and a solution is found without any damage. I don’t know how true that story was at the time (1980’s) or if it true today but imagine how much damage would have been saved if conflicts – industrial, political, national – could have been resolved like this. Think about the Korean War for example – 3 years, 1.2 million casualties and the border hardly changed from before to after the war. One can think of many other examples.

I came to think about this when reading Winston Churchill’s biography. One of his first initiatives as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies was to give the residents of South Africa the right to self-govern. He said:

"What we might have given with courage and distinction, both at home and in South Africa, upon our own terms, in the hour of our strength, will be jerked and twisted from our hands—without grace of any kind—not perhaps without humiliation—at a time when the Government may be greatly weakened, and upon terms in the settlement of which we shall have only a nominal influence.”

The question of how why we behave so irrationally is better left to psychologists or sociologists. But next time you are faced with a request, demand, or ultimatum try to think whether it is not better to reach a resolution before the conflict rather than after a hefty price is paid to manage it.

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