In defense of the quid pro quo

There have been better historical moments to advocate for the quid pro quo. And I’m certainly not supporting its usage in the circumstances being considered by Congress (see below). But the recent, public demise of the quid pro quo is all the more reason it deserves a public defender. Since seeing and approaching negotiations through the lens of a quid pro quo can make life negotiable, let me try my hand.

The essence of the argument is this: Understood appropriately, as giving something in exchange for getting something, the quid pro quo is a far better way of approaching negotiations than the way we usually do. Consider three of the quid pro quo’s finest features:

  1. Balance: Implicit in the quid pro quo is the idea that both parties to a negotiation must benefit, ideally in equal measure. That’s exactly what we spend most of a negotiation class teaching the students to appreciate, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to trounce the other side royally. And once the students appreciate that one simple fact, they suddenly find negotiation substantially more fruitful and substantially less hostile.
  2. Difference in kind: The literal meaning of quid pro quo is “something for something.” The beauty of the double somethings is that they allow for the two sides’ benefits to differ in kind. In other words, quid pro quo’s inherently allow for tradeoffs in which each party gets something different from a deal—ideally, whatever they want the most. This is yet another foundational lesson we seek to impart to aspiring negotiators, as opposed to nearly everyone else’s assumption that the goal of a negotiation is to focus on just one issue—typically money. Understood as the opportunity for mutually-beneficial tradeoffs across multiple issues, negotiations suddenly start spitting out many intriguing and unexpected possibilities. (More on this in my book, The Bartering Mindset, if you’re in the mood for a quid pro quo).
  3. Separation in time: As we’ve all learned from our TVs or streaming devices of late, the two parts of a quid pro quo do not necessarily happen at the same time. When that becomes possible—when negotiators entertain solutions in which each delivers when they’re ready or best equipped as opposed to right now—the range of potential agreements expands exponentially. The parties can agree, for example, to pay up when one side has the money, to update an agreement in response to a future event, or to reciprocate at a specific and crucial moment in the future. Those possibilities pretty obviously expand the solution set.

These are just a few of the quid pro quo’s finest features. Appreciate and implement them, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll negotiate far better. But if quid pro quos are so fantastic, why have they suffered such a precipitous public demise? Let me play the part of Switzerland on the specifics but simply observe that the debate has revolved around the way the quid pro quo was used. In particular, some have argued that the specific quid pro quo in question:

  1. Was unethical or illegal: Some would claim that one or more of the somethings in question violate widely shared societal norms, ethical principles, or laws.
  2. Involved a power imbalance: Some would claim that the quid pro quo in question didn’t meet the balance criterion above because one of the parties was vastly more powerful than the other, crowding out the other’s ability to reject an imbalanced deal (and possibly any deal at all).
  3. Created unacceptable collateral damage: Some would claim that the potentially win-win quid pro quo at the bargaining table created an unacceptable win-lose for parties away from the table—parties like ambassadors and citizens of small Eastern European (or large North American) nations.

So here’s the key point: The problem with a quid pro quo is not the quid pro quo per se. The quid pro quo, in veritas, is actually a commendable negotiation philosophy, de facto. The problem with the quid pro quo, as with most philosophies in life, is when it’s applied in the wrong circumstances. Ergo, say what you will about recent public events, but please don’t knock the quid pro quo.

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