Loss Aversion in Adversarial Collaboration

I’ve been reading Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and one of the things that really stood out to me was his presentation of loss aversion. I know that humans are loss averse, that isn’t news to me. But what I had never really thought about before was this idea in the context of adversarial collaboration in the workplace.

As a UX Strategist, almost all of my collaboration is adversarial. I am a staunch supporter of the user’s experience, sometimes to the detriment of the business plan. You might wonder, though, why that’s a problem. Shouldn’t the UX guy be supporting the user’s experience? Well, yes… but every other member of the team is a staunch supporter of their [insert focus or metric]. It is not often that every member of the team, from sales to support, is being held accountable by their supervisors for supporting or producing a positive user experience.

Side note: Sometimes creating a better user experience–even if it goes against an aspect of the business plan that directly relates to the bottom line–can be more profitable than adhering to a business model developed a decade ago. If you have the margin to support it, consider the intangible gains of a phenomenal user experience over the tangible gains afforded in some business models. I think you’ll often be surprised.

As a result, I find myself in a position where I’m held accountable for an intangible user experience and my peers are being held accountable for measurable ROI or # of tickets closed or something else entirely. This necessitates some level of adversity in the team and any time you have conflicting goals like this, you will have to compromise.

Here is where Kahneman and loss aversion come into play. Kahnemen asserts that in compromise, every concession is counted as a loss for the one conceding. It sounds obvious. It is. However, this got me thinking about recent conversations in the lab. In one example, I wanted to handle a behavior with A (and I felt like I had studies and evidence supporting A being the right answer), but a colleague wanted to handle with with B. We did settle on A as being the correct decision and we both moved on with our work. I thought no more of it and saw no need to say anything else about the matter. But then, after the way Kahneman had framed loss aversion, I realized that (even if I was right and justified), they had conceded. They valued their concession more [as a loss] than I valued my gain from the compromise.

Side note: My uncle is a lawyer and I was talking with him about this over the holidays. He said that this was a HUGE part of mediator training. Anyone who has ever gone through mediator training undoubtedly knows about how loss aversion affects compromise. Mediators are taught to praise and exclaim the virtues of the party making any concession so as to balance the asymmetrical perception of losses and gains that we all have.

This drastically changed how I view adversarial collaboration in the workplace! Now, even if I have data telling me that I am 100% correct, I make sure to approach these types of conversations with more care. Namely, I thank the other party and go out of my way to show that I understand and appreciate the loss that they have just incurred. It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way towards building more a more positive, healthy environment in which we can collaborate from adversarial positions.

UX is as much an art as it is a science, so adversarial collaboration is critical to our success in creating power user experiences. But, if handled poorly, that same critical tool can foster resentment among those on your team and decrease your peers’ desire to work with you towards building that ultimate experience.

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