Mutuality in buyer-supplier relations – more Dalai Lama, less Rambo!

We Brits often chuckle smugly at our American cousins, especially the politicians and business consultants, for their habit of creating new ‘gobbledegook’ words at the drop of a hat, rather than using perfectly understandable (our opinion) terms already in the dictionary. It was in this vein, therefore, that I questioned the use by INNOVO’s CMO Mark West, an American, of the word “adversarialism” to describe the traditional relationship between buyer and supplier.

However, perhaps trying to prove my case, I did a bit of research. I have to humbly admit it has been used elsewhere as a real word (even if it is not exactly in the OED) – apologies Mark! The research also demonstrated another way – and that is the case in aspects of life where ‘adversarialism’ has traditionally dominated.

What is ‘Adversarialism’?

The term ‘adversarialism’ is most often used in the law, politics and conflicts to denote the attitude of taking an opposing stance on something purely because of the position of an ‘opponent’. I can see the merits of the adversarial approach in our justice system, where it might not be possible for every accused person to get a ‘fair hearing’ without enforcing a legal representative to be absolutely biased in their approach to interpretation of evidence. However in other walks of life, I find it much harder to justify. Indeed, I believe that this attitude lies at the heart of the increasing disenchantment of the public with politics and politicians. The playground style debating of “yah boo sucks, you must be wrong because you are in a different gang” lends no credibility to any argument.

Adversarialism in commerce

Closer to home, in terms of my conversation with Mark, is that adversarialism is rife in business as well, no less so than in the area of procurement. When a buyer and supplier communicate there is the assumption that one side is negotiating from a position that is always disadvantageous to the other. We often hear the words “win-win” used as a policy, but do we really take it to heart? I have worked with executives who claim they are looking for a ‘partnership’ with suppliers, but who, in fact, will go to extreme measures to screw that last half a percent discount out of them even if it means the supplier could go out of business in the medium term as a result. Just look at the treatment of small suppliers by the giant supermarket chains. Equally I have seen suppliers who have sacrificed long term business relationships to get immediate revenue. This short term “I win, you lose” approach is more about ego boosting competitiveness than strategic business sense.

Mutuality – the alternative

Adversarialism is a learned attitude that reflects competition and the need to “best” others. Gordon Fellman, in his book ‘Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival’ says that our culture has become so adversarial that we are obsessively competitive, and that our cooperation with one another suffers from that compulsive adversarialsim.  Fellman suggests that we need a paradigm shift in which we learn to emphasise competition and one-up-manship less and cooperation and mutuality more. Fellman sees this shifting emphasis from adversarialism to mutuality as essential to the survival of our species and nature itself. This suggestion of an alternative to aversarialism is echoed in the writings of other peace campaigners such as Peter C. Newton-Evans.

So can ‘mutuality’ work in business? INNOVO certainly believes so. There has to be a way of changing a situation where there is a 90%+ failure rate for supplier activities designed to find new customers and then passing that cost onto buyers. Working in collaboration is the answer that unlocks the potential to grow the business of the supplier, grow the margins of the buyer, and grow the potential for charitable good causes to also receive financial benefit.  The New Global Commerce could be ‘mutuality’ in practice.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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