Win-Win Versus Compromise: What’s the Difference?

November 26, 2019
Conflict Management
Leadership & Management & Supervision
Read time: 3 mins

“We came to a win-win compromise,” is a cringe-worthy statement. There is no such thing as a “win-win compromise.” Win-win and compromise are two totally different types of agreement.

A compromise is “I want A and you want B; let’s split A and B.” We both get parts of what we want—but we both need to give up parts of what we want. Here is the problem: What do people remember after a compromise agreement? They tend to focus on what was lost.

A win-win is, “Let’s find option ‘C’ that will give us everything we both want but in a different way.” We are not giving up anything–we both get everything we want, but in a way not imagined before. It’s not a ‘half A plus half B equals C’ approach—it is a truly new option.

To be clear, there are times you should compromise and there are times you should go for the win-win. Contrary to how it sounds, win-win is not always the best way to go. Similarly, compromise is not always a bad option. Both compromise and win-win have their appropriate uses, and both come with some cautions.  


Appropriate Uses



  • When you need a quick decision—there are real time pressures.


  • You are deadlocked and positional power scale is equal.


  • Everyone needs to give to get, sometimes.



  • Tend to be short-term agreements because most focus on their losses.


  • Trust and truth may be sacrificed.


  • May not get to the best outcome—may settle for something less than the best.




Appropriate Uses



  • When you really need buy-in and a long-lasting agreement.


  • Many new ideas often get you to the best idea.


  • Cross-functional teams that need to work together and need each other’s insight to overcome a situation.



  • Takes a lot of time and not all issues may be worth that amount of time.


  • There are some things that simply aren’t win-win (there is only one corner office and we both want it).


  • Can lead to an over-emphasis on making everyone happy and that is not always a reality that can be achieved.


There are three other choices to keep in mind when working out agreements with others:

  • Force. Two good examples of when to use this approach are (1) for safety issues; and (2) during the progressive discipline process, where the boss is using the positional power bosses have.
  • Accommodation. Have you ever been in a situation where the other party really cares about an issue and you simply have an opinion? If the other party cares that much and you can take it or leave it—consider letting them have their way. In the future, they will probably reciprocate.
  • Avoidance. Let sleeping dogs lie. There may be things you simply cannot get to now due to time constraints or other more pressing issues, and there are things that have too little return on investment—sometimes avoiding is the best choice.

The next time you find yourself in this situation, consider the type of agreement that would best meet the needs of both parties. And…do not confuse win-win with compromise!