THE BLOG

Why Leaders Play Chicken

08/10/2011 05:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011

Do you remember the childhood game of chicken? In my neighborhood it took many shapes -- all of which involved two kids pushing each other to the brink (in front of others) to see which one would give in first. The game's most benign form involved a staring contest to see who could last the longest before blinking. In a more destructive but higher-stakes mode, two kids would run straight at each other at full speed until one (the chicken) turned away to avoid the collision.

Looking back, playing chicken was foolish, immature, and sometimes dangerous. After all, it wasn't really a game as much as a public way of showing who had the most guts, the most nerve, and the most will-power. Whoever won was then respected (or feared) as the dominant leader of the group, whether or not that person had any real leadership abilities.

It would be nice to think that the game of chicken was just a childhood phenomenon. But everywhere we look these days we see adults in suits playing highly-public versions of the same game: Governors and public-employee unions have been playing chicken over services, budgets, and employment in Minnesota, Connecticut, and elsewhere; well-to-do European countries, the IMF, private banks, and the Central European Bank have been playing chicken with Greece and other over-extended countries over debt relief; the Greek government in turn has been playing chicken with its workers and citizens over austerity measures; and most recently President Obama, House Speaker Boehner, and their respective constituents have been playing chicken in regard to the U.S. borrowing limit.

All of these "chicken games" share some common characteristics: They center around critical issues that must be resolved by a certain time limit; the principal players have strongly held but very different views about what needs to be done; and neither side wants to compromise. The result is a stare down to see who blinks first, and who becomes the alpha-dog.

When problems are solved in this manner, the outcome is rarely optimal. Without a spirit of compromise and willingness to engage in collaborative dialogue, it is difficult for leaders and their teams to explore the full range of options and to be creative about alternative approaches. So instead of innovative solutions, we end up with negotiated bargains that often just defer many of the tough disagreements until some unidentified time in the future. In other words, don't expect the various budgeting and borrowing problems to go away in either the U.S. or Europe; most likely they will just be put off until the next round of "the game."

What's even more disturbing about games of chicken is that they tend to polarize competing groups and therefore diminish leadership. The longer the game goes on, the more people harden their positions and blame the other side for not being willing to sacrifice. And when a "compromise" is finally struck, both sides usually feel that their leader was too weak and should not have given up so much. So no one actually "wins" in the short-term; and no incentive for improvement in the long-term is created.

While it's easy to criticize our political leaders for their lack of imagination and flexibility, the reality is that we all play chicken -- with customers or suppliers, other departments, colleagues, and even people in our personal lives. Most of us have strong beliefs or views about how things should be done. When others strongly disagree, a stare down is a perfectly normal human reaction. We all want the other person to blink.

The challenge is to get beyond the stare down; engage in open and creative problem solving; and not let the game of chicken continue indefinitely. If we learned how to do this more often and more effectively in our professional and personal lives, perhaps our political leaders would begin to understand that the real chicken is the one who doesn't blink.

What are your ideas for avoiding or more quickly ending games of chicken, both in organizations and in government?

Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online