Holding on by the eyelids

The business world often tells us to be aggressive. We’re told to project strength and hide weakness. But if there’s one thing that’s clear from my study of high-stakes decision making, strategy, and conflict it’s this: aggression is weakness, and calmness is strength.

The business world often tells us to be aggressive. To take on our competitors directly, to move quickly and with certainty.

We’re told to project strength and hide weakness.

Maybe we see our competitors acting aggressively, by buying our branded keywords on app stores or search engines. Or copying our ads, our service offering, or our product design. Or maybe they’re just saying bad things about us in the market.

We might feel like we need to respond with strength, meeting aggression with aggression or fire with fire.

But if there’s one thing that’s clear from my study of high-stakes decision making, strategy, and conflict it’s this: aggression is weakness, and calmness is strength.

We see it across time, across industries, across every field of study: almost all battles of consequence are won by maneuver, not head-to-head conflict.

In fact, the aggression of others is not something to fear, but something to appreciate as a “beautiful gift,” as Erik Seidel, one of the top poker players of all time, once said.

According to poker champion and writer Maria Konnikova in The Biggest Bluff, that beautiful gift happens to be their money. Because “at the highest levels, [aggressive people] don’t last more than a heartbeat.”

But why is that? Isn’t aggression—acting quickly with force and with vigour—exactly what we’re supposed to do to succeed?

Not if we want to win over the long-term, beyond the immediate moment.

As former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss points out in Never Split the Difference, in a study of the effectiveness of American lawyer-negotiators, 75% of the most effective negotiators came from the calmer “Cooperative type”, whereas only 12% were the more aggressive “Assertive type.”

Even surveys of military engagements over the centuries have found that almost all battles are won via indirectness, not head-to-head conflict. One military historian put it this way: “In war, as in life generally, the longest way round is often the shortest way there.”

Of course, there’s a reason why we often think aggression and assertiveness is successful. Because, in the short-term, it can be. It can take others by surprise, it can lead to early victories and it can steal ground from slower movers.

And it works right up until the moment it doesn’t.

As Robert Greene wrote in The 33 Strategies of War, “Aggressors cannot control their emotions. They cannot wait for the right moment, cannot try different approaches, cannot stop to think about how to take their enemies by surprise. In that first wave of aggression, they seem strong, but the longer their attack goes on, the clearer their underlying weakness and insecurity become.”

So how do we respond to competitors slashing prices, bidding on our keywords, rapidly scaling, or aggressively spending? Greene writes that aggressive people “will soon overextend themselves and start making mistakes.” Which means, “sometimes you can accomplish most by doing nothing.”

Sometimes, we just have to wait.

A competitor spending more than they can afford to maintain is their concern and danger, not ours. A competitor slashing prices or giving their services away for free is sowing the seeds of their failure, not ours.

A competitor bidding on our keywords or copying our offering is making unimaginative, short-term decisions—ones that will hurt them in the long-term, not us.

So long as we don’t follow them down that path.

Aggression, as the ancient philosopher Seneca wrote, is “like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.” As long as we can stay patient, stay calm, and stay in business—by not overspending, overworking, or over-discounting—our aggressive competitors do not affect us, in the long-term.

They can rattle us, they can get on our nerves, and they can scare us. But they can’t beat us because we don’t take the bait.

We don’t follow them down the path of self-inflicted destruction.

We need to “flank the devil” as the saying goes, stepping around and maneuvering past those who would do us harm. We do that by staying focused on what we’re best at, what we like doing most, and what drives the engine of our business forward.

“Control of self wins the battle,” said John D. Rockefeller, “for it means control of others.”

But that means we do have to stay calm. We do have to keep our nerve. We have to stay focused on our business, and on our customers and their Job to Be Done and the struggles they face.

And we have to prepare for the unhinged competitor, the person “holding on by the eyelids” as Rockefeller said, who “is ignorant of his costs, and anyway he’s got to keep running or bust!”

We need to assume, whatever business we’re in, that somebody will try to underprice us. They’ll try to “steal” our customers. They’ll try to undermine our advantages, and they’ll copy all our successful ideas.

But that is their weakness, not their strength.

Competitors who can only copy, who can only do what’s been done before but cheaper and faster, are not our concern. Our concern is to continually add value to our services, to continually improve our products, and to continually delight our customers in better and more meaningful ways.

It’s only when we believe ourselves to be in a fight that we are in one—and in that moment we’ve already lost.

Instead, we must focus on our goals, our business, our customers, and build a strategy that allows us to work efficiently to get what we want, in ways nobody can fully replicate.

Because nobody has our unique set of experiences, expertise, values, and preferences.

And as long as we focus our business on doing what we’re best at and doing it in our unique way, we don’t have to worry about aggressive competitors.

We just have to wait.