Management by the “Third Alternative”

Are you compromising or looking for a third alternative, a way other than just your way or my way — a better way?

Conflicts are bound to happen. In all sorts of organizations: homes, businesses, and countries. This principle of Steven Covey is simple but with profound results.

What is the third alternative?

The third alternative in this blog refers to S. Coveys definition: It is not my way, not your way but our way, a better way. The third alternative is the skill to solve differences and conflicts synergistically (see S. Covey, the 8th Habit, Chapter 10)

It is all about 1 + 1>2. It is all about stakeholder management and team building to produce better results. Third alternative is not a compromise. In compromising at least one of us loses. Third alternative is a clear win-win thinking. It is striving for a better way for the sake of a better organization, country, home, school etc. Extreme cases where everyone would wish this is on environmentalists or extreme left or right in politics. In the business or our modern world, since we are “civilized” we do not fight physically but we engage in bad-mouthing, resign inwardly or use other methods to show our positions.

Third alternative can also just mean understanding the position of one another before coming to an agreement. The initial intention might have been misunderstood hence the hard-line stance of both parties. The third alternative foundation is seeking to understand each other.

How do we now manage by third alternative?

Seek for the third alternative consciously if a lot of resources and energy is wasted in finding a solution. This can be on a personal level, on organizational levels, team levels, countries levels, schools level or even parents/children level.

In the previous blogs, we already talked about right people in the right positions to ensure meeting stakeholder expectations. This blog digs deeper and puts people’s mindset central: in search for the third alternative.

Sooner or later there will be a kind of conflict among stakeholders. The third alternative is what you forge out of your differing opinions for the benefit of both. Having in mind that there is always a third alternative gives us power. We live in a world of codependency. Synergizing is the target, not leaning towards one side. Leaning towards one side is deemed to fail. Here are some examples in our daily business:

Employees and their leaders: the leadership or management style might not suit us. Be it between middle and top management or an employee with his/her boss. The organization must act as a team, know the quality goals before showing this to the external stakeholders. Conflicts arising can be valuable: but only if we look for the third alternative, not that “you come in with your opinion, you go out with mine”. It is not my way, your way, but a third better way to move the organization forward. It is not about an employee or his boss being right but about the organization producing better results. 

Business partners: How many hours do we spend trying to iron out differences we have about contract details in order to push our agendas? How often are we willing to look for a solution that is better than both of us suggest? Looking for the third alternative together involves each party understanding each other to generate a solution for both. If we short change suppliers for some short-term benefit then other problems are bound to arise anyway. Note again that management by the third alternative is not compromising. It is a chance for something greater. The third alternative makes us make better and stronger relationships and improve trust to win together.

Acquisitions/mergers, clash of cultures: There is always a big opportunity when companies merge and two cultures come together. The process is not natural. With people and culture, there is no quick and easy fix. Successfully working together has to be learned; it takes time, persistency and patience to transform dependency into interdependency. Mostly it is not seen as an opportunity but rather your way and my way. Only a few are able to see the opportunity and spread a positive influence across the organization. Most have a win-lose thinking. Change management, getting together to work on a solution geared towards seeing the company move forward, setting common targets are just a few tools that help us come to a common understanding and identify a better way, the third alternative.

What’s now the role of the leaders in an organization?

Leaders are there to see conflict as an opportunity, not as me against you or us against them. There are there to align structures and systems with values like seeking to understand each and every employee. Leaders enable and empower us to take responsibility, even being self-critical in the search for the third alternative. The third alternative will ask whether the right person is at the right place to find our way, not yours and not mine.

Our way means shared responsibility. From there each party takes responsibility of his actions and decisions and works towards achieving something higher.

It is common knowledge that when people know they are not working against one another but with each other they create room for better ideas. Emotions are used positively, not negatively.

Leaders see conflicts as an opportunity and seek for a better solution. Leaders create an environment that enable people enlarge their area of and increase voice of influence. An environment where the 5 emotional cancer types have no chance: (see S. Covey, The 8th Habit, Chapter 7):

    1. Criticizing
    2. Complaining
    3. Comparing (counter productively, not in the sense of benchmark)
    4. Competing (the damaging part of it – not the healthy part of it)
    5. Contending

In a nutshell:

Alternative thinking involves basically two steps (not necessarily in this sequence):

  1. Searching for a solution that is better than what either of us has proposed (successful teams do this).
  2. Making your point only after fully understanding your partner’s point to his/her satisfaction

Win-win and synergizing is not compromise. It has to be a better solution: both parties must fully be aware of it. Not both parties might be thinking win-win from the start. It could be that only one does and convinces the other one to think differently.

This sense of thinking can be practiced at home, with friends, with colleagues, when representing institutions or business partners. A simple question always helps: are you ready to search for a better solution, better than what each of us have proposed?

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15 thoughts on “Management by the “Third Alternative”

  1. Another awesome read from the author! Furthermore, the “my way or the highway” attitude already killed so many organisations’ reputations. To thrive in the business world, people need to invest in management skills and be open to The Third Alternative!

    An article worthy of every executive’s moment!

  2. Well synthesized! However, I’m curious…
    How different is the third alternative from My Way and Your Way, when we are still the same parties to work it out?

    • Thank you Ruth for your comment and question. Gladys asnweres it right (see below). It is about seeking something higher for the benefit of all. In the third alternative thinking, both parties create room for a choice both of you never thought of before. All peaceful countries in the world sort for the third alternative by just asking “Can’t we do better than this?”. In daily business / life: if both of you cannot come to an agreement, you can start by inviting a third party to “open your eyes” for a third alternative. At the moment you invite someone, both of you have achived the first step: being ready for something better. If for example there is a conflict on the question: “who should do a kind of work” in the business world; the third alternative might be to outsource this kind of work to achieve even better results. In short: my way is the first, your way the second alternative and the higher / better WAY is the third alternative.

  3. I like this, ability to build the future together as a team even out of conflicts experienced . And seeing the other party as possessing something that i do not possess and that can contribute towards a better future for both parties – incredible.

  4. Ruth, i believe third alternative is more to do with appreciating the ability you may totally not have or like, but other parties posses, and still going ahead to utilize them for the benefit of all stakeholders involved. I may see your idea as not worthy, at the same time i should not dismiss it just because i do not like it. (Digest the other party’s idea before letting go of it).

    I stand corrected if i did not get it right though.

  5. Thanks Susan. I must say that i just got a clearer picture of the third alternative from your elaboration.

  6. So illuminating – whether for big corporate relationships, businesses or our day to day work. It provides strong motivation on how we improve work output, product value and business performance through synergy of diverse perspectives, opinions, views and different energy.

  7. This was worth reading – it is not only applicable in work’s environment but also in everyday life.

  8. Applies not only in business setting but everywhere. If management/parents/ leaders would set this kind tone at the top, it would trickle down to the employees , children etc. Great conflict resolution strategy, we only need to make a conscious effort to put it in action. Fantastic read, totally worth sharing!

  9. This is a really good way of thinking; very useful in the present world. It needs to be cultivated by leaders and managers in all organizations.

  10. Hi Susan,
    This is a great read; leaves me with 2 questions:

    1. If both parties have a discussion and they come to an agreement to use “my way”, is that considered a third alternative?

    2. I don’t have a problem making decisions with my partners, we always talk it out and find an area of synergy. It’s the employee employer arena that I’m worried about. I have 4 employees now, but I seem to be the one making all the decisions. Not because I want to, but because I rarely get the second alternative from them even when I ask for it. I throw questions like “How do you think we should sought this out?” and 90% of the time all I get is silence. How can we get to the third alternative, if we can’t even get a second?

    • Thanks Tito. Regarding your questions:
      1) Assuming you were involved in the discussion as the first party then both of you identified a win in “your way” and no conflict arose, hence not a third alternative. If two parties agreed to take a third party’s
      suggestion (your view) then we consider that as a third alternative.
      2) I would say your”good” employees are not proactive. As along as they are not taking initiative to expand their circle of influence, you will hardly get a second alternative as you mention; hence no third alternative. If you want them to be proactive then you have to reward proactivity and not silence. If that does not work as an incentive then you may ask yourself whether you have got the right people on the bus and in the right seats.

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