Tit-for-Tat: Nice, Tough, Forgiving, and Clear Leadership

Mar 10, 2021 2 min read
Tit-for-Tat: Nice, Tough, Forgiving, and Clear Leadership

Despite its name, which emphasizes adversarial behaviour, tit-for-tat is a largely cooperative strategy. Learn why tit-for-tat is good for leadership.

Search for tit-for-tat on the Internet, and you’ll get pages of results. Most are about retaliation. But is tit-for-tat really about getting even? Is it the same as an eye for an eye? Has popular culture (and politics) got it wrong? Does tit-for-tat offer a lesson for leaders?

Tit-for-Tat Strategy

Tit-for-tat means equivalent retaliation and despite its name is, in fact, a largely cooperative strategy. Indeed, tit-for-tat is the competition-cooperation paradox often seen in nature but also replicated in business.

He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass. – George Herbert

We often think of competition as a win-loose situation. However, business life is rarely like this.

In just about every situation, cooperation is the norm. People work together for mutual benefit. We don’t succeed by overcoming others, but by cooperation.

The political strategist Robert Axelrod first described he tit-for-tat strategy in 1984. Contrary to its name, the goal of tit-for-tat is always to cooperate.

However, if another party is uncooperative, the strategy dictates that the response should be competitive. That is, to punish uncooperative behaviour. And when uncooperative behaviour ceases, a return to cooperation follows.

Nice, Tough, Forgiving, and Clear Leadership

This is also known as the “nice, tough, forgiving, and clear” heuristic. But how is this relevant to leaders?

A lazy leader is someone who prefers to cooperate but is also a skilled competitor. The Lazy Leader is nice, tough, forgiving, and clear.

  • Nice: The leader knows the benefits of cooperation in forming alliances. They are appreciative, positive thinkers that are confident and flexible.
  • Tough: They know when to compete. They aren’t left behind; they are capable of out doing others through competitive action. They are both confident and courageous.
  • Forgiving: The Lazy Leader knows when it is necessary to smooth over awkward or rough patches to get back to business. They are confident, compassionate, and fair.
  • Clear: They know that the best outcome for all is cooperation. They are clear about this, and as a result so are others. They are confident, fair and honest leaders.

What strategy is the most productive: retaliation or cooperation? Do you forgive or hold a grudge? You are welcome to share your thoughts in the comments.

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