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Getting Your Way: Strategic Dilemmas in the Real World

Getting Your Way: Strategic Dilemmas in the Real World

by James M. Jasper

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Getting other people to do what we want is a useful skill for anyone. Whether you’re seeking a job, negotiating a deal, or angling for that big promotion, you’re engaged in strategic thought and action. In such moments, you imagine what might be going on in another person’s head and how they’ll react to what you do or say. At the same time,


Getting other people to do what we want is a useful skill for anyone. Whether you’re seeking a job, negotiating a deal, or angling for that big promotion, you’re engaged in strategic thought and action. In such moments, you imagine what might be going on in another person’s head and how they’ll react to what you do or say. At the same time, you also try to pick the best way to realize your goals, both with and without the other person’s cooperation. Getting Your Way teaches us how to win that game by offering a fuller understanding of how strategy works in the real world.

As we all know, rules of strategy are regularly discovered and discussed in popular books for business executives, military leaders, and politicians. Those works with their trendy lists of pithy maxims and highly effective habits can help people avoid mistakes or even think anew about how to tackle their problems. But they are merely suggestive, as each situation we encounter in the real world is always more complex than anticipated, more challenging than we had hoped. James M. Jasper here shows us how to anticipate those problems before they actually occur—by recognizing the dilemmas all strategic players must negotiate, with each option accompanied by a long list of costs and risks. Considering everyday dilemmas in a broad range of familiar settings, from business and politics to love and war, Jasper explains how to envision your goals, how to make the first move, how to deal with threats, and how to employ strategies with greater confidence.

Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Rosa Parks, Hugo Chávez, and David Koresh all come into play in this smart and engaging book, one that helps us recognize and prepare for the many dilemmas inherent in any strategic action.

Editorial Reviews

Financial Times
[An] original and distinctive take on the question of strategy. . . . A refreshingly alternative look at the human dilemmas at the heart of strategic decision-making.

— Stefan Stern

Financial Times - Stefan Stern
"[An] original and distinctive take on the question of strategy. . . . A refreshingly alternative look at the human dilemmas at the heart of strategic decision-making."
Wayne Baker
"Getting Your Way gives us a fresh, powerful perspective on strategic action in social and economic life. It brings a robust theory of action and choice to sociology and political science as it breathes life into the sterile world of game theory and economics. Written with precision and flair, it is a must-read for anyone­—academics or practitioners­—interested in understanding and thriving in business, politics, organizations, and markets."
Alain Touraine
“What a bright and daring thinker! In Getting Your Way, James Jasper attacks the utilitarian view of strategy, which too often is imposed upon us by economists. Jasper leads us to the notion of strategic dilemmas which becomes one of the most efficient instruments of analysis. This is the most original and illuminating introduction to strategy that I have read.”

Lee Clarke
Getting Your Way is a wondrous book—well-written, hard-driving, interesting, creative, and important. A gifted storyteller and a brilliant analyst, Jasper uses broad-ranging examples, drawing on personal experience, philosophy, and history to convey his message that much of social interaction is strategic. Throughout Jasper pushes his analysis in ways that challenge popular accounts of strategy—especially game theory—identifying their deficiencies and pointing the way forward. This is a fun book to read."

Contemporary Sociology
“[An] intelligent, provocative, and original exegesis of strategy as social interaction. . . . A valuable and original work, Getting Your Way should be read by scholars across a range of disciplines and by all individuals puzzling over their own strategic dilemmas.”

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University of Chicago Press
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By JAMES M. JASPER The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-39475-6

Chapter One


If a country abounds with woods or mountains, you may lie in ambush and, when he least expects it, fall suddenly upon an enemy and be assured of success. [But] if it be an open plain, you cannot conceal a part of your forces as would be necessary. ->MACHIAVELLI

I had only lived in New York a week when I was mugged-in Times Square no less, in the middle of the day, with crowds of people all around. I was looking in a shop window when I felt a hand in my left pocket. As I turned around, it pulled out, taking a lot of cash with it. I was a bit confused about what was happening, but I took a step toward the short man backing away from me. I probably said something cogent like "Hey!" The same instant, a much larger man knocked me down-hard. My girlfriend was backing into the store, clutching her expensive camera. The two men scrambled for some bills that had fallen to the pavement, and one grabbed at my hat, which had fallen off. Not my hat! I grabbed it back, and the two of them ran off. It had taken no more than a few seconds. Neither of us had really had time to react, much less to cry out. This is simply not what we had been expecting. In contrast the two men, who had followed us for blocks,knew exactly what they were doing. This was their business. For them, it was an easy job.

Often, by the time you realize someone has begun to interact with you in a strategic fashion, it is too late to do much about it. Sometimes, you have already lost. You have already been fired from your job. Worse, you're already dead. Taking the initiative can have clear advantages, especially when much of the initial activity can be kept secret. But this merely increases the biggest advantage, surprise. What is perhaps less obvious are the barriers and disadvantages to initiating strategic interaction.


In this chapter I look at who begins strategic action, why, and how. I do not think people initiate strategic interactions very often. We rarely sit down and ask, what do I want? How can I get it? Mostly, we are already embroiled in routines and habits, following laws and bureaucratic rules. We rarely stop to think about ends or the means to attain them. But sometimes we do. And sometimes we act on those thoughts.

We can get involved in a strategic engagement in several different ways. We may formulate a project and take the first step toward accomplishing it. Or we may join an interaction someone else has begun; we may be the direct target or simply be drawn in indirectly, as ally or witness. Finally, we may choose a strategic response to someone else's actions that were not intended strategically. I have listed these in what I suspect is their increasing order of frequency. Let's begin with the first case.

Who initiates strategic action? First, some personalities seem prone to launching strategic action: the gang member who cooks up the next convenience-store heist, the sibling who plays a trick on another, the friend who is always thinking up ways to make a buck. They have a kind of strategic creativity, perhaps due to a willingness to break rules or a penchant for viewing people as strategic players rather than as loved ones. Paranoids see more intentionality in the world than the rest of us, interpreting others' actions as attacks and responding in kind.

If individual personality is important in the origins of strategic interaction, then social roles and positions are probably more so. Some people and organizations initiate strategic action as part of their jobs or missions. Corporate executives are forever launching "strategic initiatives," their name for almost anything they decide to do that they can pretend is new and different. Presumably certain employees or consultants devote their time to cooking up these strategies (although they are not always strategies in my sense, merely plans). Inventors develop products that may cause strategic battles when they are launched. Policymakers and interest groups make proposals that set off chains of strategic interactions. Every day hundreds of U.S. Army colonels sit at their desks trying to imagine the implications of engagements around the world.

As these examples suggest, some parts of any society are designed for strategic engagement, and some players are permanent and ongoing. We will look at particular arenas, such as law courts or electoral politics, later. If you are going to be a lawyer or politician, you will interact with others strategically. Legal and political settings require this.

In personal life, initiating positions are less obvious. People spend most of their time following personal routines and workplace procedures. But when they call someone for a date, decide to look for a new job, or try to buy a house, they launch strategic interactions with others. In the heterosexual world it is still usually the man's role to ask the woman on a date; some take the step of registering with an Internet dating service. And there are certain characteristic moments in life when people move or look for new jobs-one reason that even these interactions are partly routinized.

Cooperative interactions like these are easy to initiate, since the other party has something to gain as well. Real estate agents are paid to hook you up with that new home. They may even seek you out, taking the initiative in this interaction. Most market transactions involve players who are interested in cooperation. But not all cases are so clear. You may have to persuade others that the interaction will indeed be cooperative rather than conflictual. The man must persuade that potential date that she will have fun; the possibility that she will turn down his invitation shows the fuzzy interpenetration of conflict and cooperation.

The real estate transaction reveals several aspects of strategic games. Most have three or more players-in this case the buyer, the seller, and the agent. Typically you are simultaneously cooperating and in conflict. The agent wants the deal to go through, and this may require the seller to accept less than she wants or the buyer to pay more. In this example, the agent is supposedly cooperating with both sides but also acting on behalf of one of them-against the other. (This arena is so confused that in New York, you must sign a form saying that you understand your real estate agent is not in fact acting as your agent on your behalf!) Second, the conflict between the buyer and seller over price and other details takes place within a broader context of cooperation: both desire the transaction, but on the best possible terms.

Some academics are adept at creating one kind of strategic game: competition over faculty. If you can get two universities enthusiastic about hiring (or retaining) you, you have your best shot at increasing your salary and status. You become a "hot property," while two institutions battle for your loyalty; others may hear of this, conclude that you must be worth the fuss, and join the competition. Some individuals manage to do this year after year, in many cases never actually moving to a new job. (I have noticed that rational-choice scholars seem especially adept at this kind of self-interested game.) Here again, you get what you want from potential employers by shifting the interaction from a direct conflict between you and each university to one between the universities, which allows you to have a more cooperative relationship to each. On the down side, too much of this activity is considered bad behavior by colleagues-revealing a general anxiety and fear about those who initiate strategic action. They cause trouble for the rest of us.

In addition to starting an entirely new engagement, you can initiate action within an ongoing interaction. Within an existing conflict, you may suddenly open up a new arena; or within a routine interaction, you may try something new. Baseball provides an example. Within the "normal" flow of a game, a coach may signal for a player to make a surprise move, such as a bunt. If the opposition knows a surprise is coming, they may figure out what it is (options are limited), so you need to hide the very fact that you are sending a signal or preparing a surprise. Even so, a player may give it away. Yogi Berra, as a young player, chattered constantly while on base-except when he had been given special instructions. When he fell silent, he was ripe for being picked off. (He was quickly retrained to chatter all the time.)

All of us have initiated strategic interaction at one time or another. But the existence of certain personalities, positions, and organizations that "specialize" in it shows that it is relatively unusual. Starting something has both advantages and disadvantages, as we will see; more importantly, however, engagement brings a great deal of risk. You can never fully control how others will respond, how interactions will unfold. You may not be as good a strategist as others are. In Venezuela, for example, opponents of President Hugo Chávez tried to oust him, first through a coup in the military and then through a strike at the national oil company; he ended up with tighter control over both. For another example, you may suggest to your partner that the two of you need more time apart, with other friends, intending some rethinking of the relationship. Your partner embraces the idea all too enthusiastically and is soon out the door forever-not exactly what you intended. Such risks form a basic dilemma, what I call the Risk Dilemma, that appears in different forms in later chapters.

* * *

THE RISK DILEMMA -> Most engagements and moves within engagements entail unknown and known probabilities of a number of outcomes, both good and bad-and these are often not easily compared. Increased odds of a big gain often accompany those of a big loss. There is typically a prudent choice to risk less and an enterprising one to risk more. The levels of risk that players will tolerate is a fundamental choice facing all of them. Entering a strategic interaction always risks an unknown outcome, and hence is more enterprising than avoiding or refusing interaction. (See the Engagement Dilemma below.) Prospect theory in psychology and economics has shown how the framing of this dilemma affects the choices made-all the while establishing the centrality of the trade-off.

* * *

With characteristic good sense, Anthony Giddens shows the link between strategic engagement and riskiness by defining fateful moments, "when individuals are called on to take decisions that are particularly consequential for their ambitions, or more generally for their future lives." Such moments may be planned or forced on us by events. In my view, most are choices whether to embark on strategic projects and what kind to undertake. They are times, Giddens points out, "at which, in more traditional settings, oracles might have been consulted or divine forces propitiated." Our destiny is partly in the hands of fate, with all the uncertainty it brings. At fateful moments, "the individual must launch out into something new, knowing that a decision made, or a specific course of action followed, has an irreversible quality, or at least that it will be difficult thereafter to revert to the old paths." Much is at risk.

Sometimes we work hard to avoid engagements. Erving Goffman described the obvious example of our actions on a modern city street, where we use "civil inattention" to avoid interactions with strangers. We glance at passersby, then immediately look away. When arguments break out, even among friends or family, we often remain silent to avoid "getting involved." Many engagements are simply unpleasant. Of course, civil inattention can get us mugged when others are determined to engage us.

Cynical resignation, or at least grudging acceptance of the status quo, underlies much of our reluctance to engage. Especially in dealing with the many bureaucracies of modern life, we tend to feel that the outcome will be the same whether we get involved or not. Things may even work out for the better. (Giddens points out that this resignation can have either a pessimistic or an optimistic tinge.) Whether we call it fatalism or mere adaptation, this form of acceptance is ubiquitous. Such moods can be a cultural tradition or a recurrent personality trait.

Besides our inclinations and intentions, many sources of inertia work against strategic action. In some cases inertia prevents interaction altogether; in others it brings it to an end. Calculations of likely outcomes often suggest that a player should avoid an engagement. Emotions such as anger and outrage frequently overpower these calculations and draw players into battle. Passions like these are not necessarily irrational, but they do not conform to the narrow, calculating definition of rationality used by most game theorists. (Inertia also attends some paths of action once initiated, keeping them going once they have been launched, such as organizational routines that are hard to dislodge.) Even when calculations suggest engagement, people may still need an emotional spur to get them to do what furthers their goals.

Another reason initiation is rare has to do with the fragility of sustained action. Projects are easier to prevent or halt than to start or continue. First, most strategic action is costly. Skills, resources, attention, and coordination must all be combined, then expended. Many arenas impose high costs of entry, like licenses to practice law or seats on exchanges. "Friendly fire" too is an unavoidable cost of war-even when you win. All strategic interactions produce some form of collateral damage. For most people strategic actions-and especially the responses from others-are extremely stressful (although some people thrive on the excitement). A strategic engagement usually requires lots of attention, crowding out other aspects of players' lives. A great political leader may ignore her family or finances, for instance. Professional military leaders are often reluctant to enter "dirty" wars like ethnic rivalries not only because of the risk to resources but even more to morale (loss of lives counts in both columns, at least in today's culture).

Action is also fragile because it is easy for one reluctant or inept player or defector to bring the enterprise to a halt; many have some degree of veto power. If your spouse does not want to leave the house on time, the two of you won't; if one partner doesn't want to have sex, it won't happen. It is easy to refuse to cooperate simply by delaying or absenting yourself at the right moment. (This need not be intentional; attacking troops for instance often develop "weak knees" and other bodily failures that take them out of the action.) In the case of a filibuster, opponents can "fill up" an arena with other issues, preventing you from pursuing yours. Coercive powers are rarely absolute, as you usually need some cooperation from others. It is easier to prevent them from acting in certain ways than to require performance of some kind: it is easier to pull on a rope than push with it. The Shah of Iran learned this when he tried to keep newspapers, oil operations, and electric production going despite mass strikes. It took more troops than workers to keep the latter at their stations, and they left as soon as the troops did. (Numerous coordination and control mechanisms have been designed to overcome the fragility problem, but none are foolproof.) Inept players are just as dangerous: if you lack confidence in your lawyer, you may accept the certainties of a plea bargain to avoid the strategic uncertainties of a trial.

In addition, chance events happen that thwart strategic action even when all the players are agreed. The world is chaotic and "foggy," as Carl von Clausewitz said. Some factors, like the weather, are accepted as being out of our control. Our tools, on the other hand, promise control but sometimes break that promise. (Talcott Parsons termed the former "conditions," the latter, "means.") Hannah Arendt thought these sources of friction trivial compared to humans themselves, who use strategic actions to reveal complex identities that inevitably transcend their stated purposes of action. She spoke of "the notorious uncertainty not only of all political matters, but of all affairs that go on between men directly, without the intermediary, stabilizing, and solidifying influence of things." An important contribution that leaders and ideologies make to their teams is to create an illusion of a world that is orderly and responsive to our action, an arena in which strategic projects make sense.


Excerpted from GETTING YOUR WAY by JAMES M. JASPER Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James M. Jasper teaches at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His previous books include The Art of Moral Protest and Restless Nation: Starting Over in America, both of which are published by the University of Chicago Press.

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