Fixed-pie thinking is undermining the ADR field's development

When it comes to business and competition, too many mediators default to fixed-pie thinking. And it’s getting in the way of the ADR field’s development.

Fixed-pie thinking assumes limitation – for one person to get more pie, someone else must get less. Most basic mediation training teaches approaches for expanding the pie so mediators can help parties see past the blindspots caused by fixed-pie thinking.

If mediators grok expand-the-pie thinking, why is it seemingly difficult to apply such good counsel and strategy to their own work? What is it about competition among mediators that fosters protectionism?

Consider these scenarios pulled from my business notes for this post:

  • A few years ago at a board meeting of the NH Conflict Resolution Association, colleague and friend Ellen Dinerstein said, “You know, I think we should just name the elephant sitting in the middle of this room right now: Competition. Mediators don’t want to talk about the fact that we’re all competing with one another for what little work there is out there. I think we need to talk about this because it’s getting in our way.” Our eyes met across the room and I concurred. Then there was a deadly silence in the room, followed by the meeting’s chairperson moving us quickly on to a different topic.
  • While chatting with a mediator at a regional conference, I mentioned blogging as one way I grow my practice. He replied quickly and emphatically: “I’ll never blog because it makes my strategy for building business too obvious to other mediators who wouldn’t hesitate to steal my ideas.”
  • I was talking with a mediator who’s signed up for my Making Mediation Your Day Job course. She’s not joined in online or telephone conversations at all to date, choosing instead to be a silent presence in the self-paced online course. When I asked her why, she was frank: “I don’t want to look stupid. There’s so much I don’t know how to do.”

Here’s what I hear in those statements:

  • Fear of intellectual property theft. I’ve experienced others borrowing liberally from my words because they were too lazy to put in their own effort. Someone recently said to me, “But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” To which I replied, “No, it’s the sincerest form of slackery.”
  • Fear that helping others won’t be reciprocated. I keenly remember slowing down near the end of a 10K race a decade ago to urge on someone who had stopped running. There were no heroics on my part: I was in no danger of winning so it wasn’t giving up much to pause and urge a fellow runner on. I convinced her to start running again and ran at her side toward the finish line. About 20 yards from the finish, she sprinted ahead and entered the chute with me behind her. I admit I still want to swat her upside the head for such poor sportsmanship.
  • Fear of failure. When I polled readers here a while back, asking what single thing most gets in the way of building the ADR business of their dreams, the most frequent answer was “fear of failure.”

They’re real fears. Those things could happen. Those things do happen.

But the fear is feeding a state of arrested development in a field that should be worrying a whole lot less about competition and a whole lot more about why mediation, decades after formalizing in the U.S. and other countries, is still not widely adopted. In the name of fear, of competition, and of self-protection, mediators aren’t sharing what’s working, what’s yielding results and what they’re doing to yield successes. And without the pooled knowledge and ideas about success, there are many mediators recreating the same mistakes, floundering alone, unsure where to put their time, energy and resources.

Imagine what liberally shared successes could do. We could go from: More work for any good mediator means less work for me, to this: More work for any good mediator means more work for all good mediators.

What will it take, do you think, to shrug off the fixed-pie thinking that’s shrouding our field?

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