Be careful what you wish for. How often in life do we achieve a victory only to decide that we would have been better off without it? Game theorists speak of a winner’s curse When I was a boy, my father would challenge me by asking, “Are you sure you want that?” My grandfather was heard on several occasions to mutter, “God help you when you get what you want.” There is no guarantee that attaining a goal will lead you to a good outcome.
The Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus led an army that suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War. In both of Pyrrhus’s victories, the Romans suffered greater casualties than Pyrrhus did. However, the Romans had a much larger supply of men from which to draw soldiers, so their casualties did less damage to their war effort than Pyrrhus’s casualties did to his. He is often quoted as having said “Another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined.”
As a young lawyer, I saw case after case that could be described as Pyrrhic victories. People in difficult disputes would turn to their attorneys for advice about how to proceed. Being lawyers, they would recommend litigation: “We’ll sue the bastards.” By the end of that process, often years later, the loser of the lawsuit was bitter and impoverished. In many cases, so was the so-called winner. One can almost imagine the winning litigant, upon hearing the verdict, declaring, “One more such victory and we shall be utterly ruined.”
If you look carefully, you will see examples of Pyrrhic victories all around you – situations where someone can accurately say, “I won,” yet must acknowledge that winning actually took him in the opposite direction from what he was trying to achieve.
An American officer describing a small hamlet in Vietnam said, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
The apocryphal surgeon who declared, “The operation was a success but the patient died.”
A technology company that maintains high prices for its product but, in doing so, fails to achieve the overwhelming market penetration necessary for the format to succeed.
The lesson for negotiators is straightforward. From the beginning of your preparation, start to figure out what you are actually trying to achieve. Dig deeply below your opening positions and explore what underlying interests you are trying to meet. Understand what would truly be a “good outcome” for you and work backwards in an attempt to bring it to fruition. “What do you really want?” is invariably the essential question in any negotiation.