Winning Without Conflict

People confuse conflict with competition. This confusion is extremely costly. Sun Tzu defines competition as a comparison, where the "winner" of the comparison gains certain rewards. Competition is inevitable because comparison is inevitable. Comparisons must be made before choices can be made. Any situation that involves judgment requires a choice or competition among alternatives. The most common forms of human competition are all contests for the support of others. All such competitions are determined by the comparisons that people make. People choose to support us or support others based upon their assessment of our relative positions.

We can try to win this comparison by conflict, that is, tearing down our competitors' positions but doing so is unavoidably costly. Others will defend their position and retaliate by attacking ours. The costs of conflict decrease profit that can be won. Indeed, Sun Tzu teaches that over the long run, the costs of conflict must be more than any rewards that can be won. 

The goal of competition is to win rewards through by gaining the support of others. Losing sight of this central fact always leads to failure. Conflict is based always upon a miscalculation. Both particles enter into these "wars of attrition" thinking they can win. One of these competitors is always wrong. Often, both are wrong because they both come out of the conflict with fewer resources and less support than when they began.

While Sun Tzu offers many rules for succeeding by minimizing conflict's costs when it is unavoidable, he teaches that the best strategy is always avoiding conflict. Conflict is always costly. The costs of conflict always weaken our position even if we "beat" our opponent. This principle is so basic to Sun Tzu's rules that he spends most of the second chapter in The Art of War explaining it. [node:content/strategic-principle-day-313-biggest-source-strategic-costs-conflict link cck=teaser; cck=field_situation; collapsed]

Strangely, our fear of loss from conflict must increase its long-term costs. After conflict begins, no one wants to lose their investment in the contest. As conflict continues, all sides increase their investment in hopes of winning back some of their costs, throwing good money after bad, as it were. The only logical stopping point in this "doubling down" on a bad bet is when one party's resources are all gone. At that point, even the winner's share of any awards are unlikely to cover the costs of conflict. Consistently engaging in conflict to resolve competitive situations is a losing strategy. All "wars of attrition" are eventually losers even for the supposed victors.

What the Science Says

Interestingly, Sun Tzu's ancient concepts have been fairly recently proven by modern scientific experiment. Those in the social sciences and game theory have set up auctions where both the winner and loser must pay the costs. The result is always the same: everyone pays too much because only by continuing can they reduce their costs. The problem is that by continuing, we actually make our losses worse and worse, even for the winners. Max Bazerman a professor at Harvard Business School, who ran hundreds of such auctions, calls this "The Winner's Curse."

Defining Conflict

Conflict has a very specific definition in Sun Tzu's strategy. The term "conflict" describes all situations where two rivals must continue investing to prevent their opponent from winning. Since the goal is to prevent the rival from winning, conflict always seeks to damage an opponent enough to prevent them from continuing. Conflict is not merely the lack of cooperation. Conflict means seeking confrontations that are meant to be costly to opponents. While all competitive acts, even those that are primarily creative, can destroy opposing positions as a byproduct, conflict is purposeful destructive action for its own sake.

Since competition is a comparison of alternative positions, conflict can seem to make sense in contest for rewards. Our positions seem comparatively better if our opponents' positions are damaged. However, ranking alone doesn't define competition. Any comprehensive definition of competition must factor in the rewards gained. The reality is that we are rewarded for being cooperative much more frequently than we are rewarded for being belligerent.

Too many of us think of competition in terms of "getting even," but Sun Tzu rejects both aspects of getting even. We succeed neither by bringing others down to our level nor by simply catching up to them. Instead of getting even, Sun Tzu teaches us to "get odd," that is to distinguish ourselves from others by standing out and doing things that are unexpected.

A Logical Choice from Economics

The logical argument against conflict is economic rather than moral.[node:content/strategic-principle-day-312-strategy-based-upon-economic-model-profit-and-loss link cck=teaser; cck=field_situation; collapsed] If we try to damage others, they will try to damage us. It doesn't matter how the rewards are defined: physical, emotional or social. If the battle is one of attrition, where the costs must be extracted from both parties and there is only one winner, the costs must escalate. This exchange is always costly to both parties.

Though we cannot know the costs or benefits of any strategic move in advance, we can know that any move that brings us into conflict with others will be more costly than any move that avoids conflict. Since the goal of strategy is not merely to win a victory but to make victory pay, conflict is conceptually counterproductive. In a war of attrition, both parties lose more often than not.

Sun Tzu's Focus on Mission

The logic of conflict is myopic. It focuses on an opponent and their position instead of our mission and our position.[node:content/16-mission-values-0 link cck=teaser; cck=field_situation; collapsed] As two parties try to damage each other, the positions of both decline. If we are artificially forced to choose between them, as we are in a single political election, for example, one party can "win" through conflict, but over time, these victories are Pyrrhic. In judging such conflict, most people eventually decide for "a plague on both their houses." In real life, a smart boss is more likely to fire rivals who work on damaging each other's careers. Just because some games such as chess can be designed as wars of attrition doesn't mean that the lessons from such games can be applied more generally to competitive strategy in the real world.

The impulse to fight, like the impulse to run away, is instinctual and reflexive. Sun Tzu taught that anger, hate, and demonizing our enemies are all strategic traps. These mindsets weaken positions rather than strengthening them.

The Nature of Enmity

Understood correctly, the heart of any competition is always dueling philosophies. Positioning is a battle to win supporters and discourage opponents. When we demonize opponents, we are trying to tear down their position, but in doing so, we undermine our chances of success by attracting supporters who are looking for someone to hate rather than a goal to support. The character of these supporters will lead us inevitably in costly conflict. Positions built on philosophies of enmity are inherently weak. Positions built on mutual rewards are inherently strong. Groups bound together by mutual enemies are, to quote Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury signifying nothing" and have been shown throughout history to fall apart once the enemy is defeated.

As we discuss in detail in this article on the importance of empathy in using our rules,establishing winning positions isn't based on fighting others but in finding common ground with them. Sun Tzu's strategy is based on positioning, which requires us to see how others think and feel. This requires seeing the world from the perspective of others, empathizing with them.

Competitive Arenas: 

Warrior's Rules: