I recently watched the movie Thirteen Days, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it (among other recent events in my life) gave me reason to think about ultimatums. In this case, the USA gave Russia an ultimatum: remove the nuclear missiles from Cuba...or else. After much stress and feather-fluffing and bluff-calling, the Soviets did what they were told to do. You might say the USA won the battle because a nuclear war was avoided. But there were costs and losses too. Russia and Cuba were deeply shaken and temperamental egos were riled up. Khrushchev was ousted. Cuba, because of the American promise to never invade, would remain Communist for decades, maybe forever. Allies, including Turkey, felt alienated. Within our own country, the strength of the Democratic party was shaken,and some believe this crisis paved the way for a defeat in Vietnam.
Ultimatums are demands, for one party to get what it wants and usually for the other party to have to give up something it wants or values. They are high-pressure strategies that look for tangible results, and usually are used as the last possible, final, uncompromising requirement with an implied threat of a very serious penalty. They are often used when one party is stronger than the other, though not always. The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, which some say actually triggered WWI, was shocking to many because the ultimatum revealed Austria's self-perception of being greater than Serbia. Ultimatums are used widely in politics, often as a threat for one result but that actually creates unintended results too, such as widening existing rifts or alienating countries who aren't even involved directly.
Ultimatums are also used in business; in fact one consultant specializing in sales force management suggests that they are appropriate to achieve desired results, but only if the recipient of the ultimatum is adequately supported to achieve success, and if both parties to the ultimatum are committed to the same end result. But here's the rub: he also suggests that ultimatums are embraced by Type A managers who thrive on pressure, challenge, and urgency and are used to determine whether type B's can become type A's...and also to get type C's to leave the company. Obviously a manager has the right to tell a subordinate how to do his/her job, and obviously a failure to perform is grounds for termination. But it seems to me there is a fine line between natural performance measurements and results and ultimatums. Besides, not everyone is, or can be, or should be a Type A. A manager issuing an ultimatum, like the USA did to Russia, might think he has "won" when an ultimatum results in an employees' departure. And maybe he has. But there is also a cost: it could be employee morale, it could be a decline in productivity for a temporary period, or it could be signficant family or financial hardship for the person on the other side, who was forced to leave.
And then we come to relationships. Take a look at the self-help books or peruse the Internet. Ultimatums are used all too frequently in this arena, too. Relationships should be founded on equal footing between two adults, like two countries, except perhaps in the parent-child situation, which is similar to the manager-employee structure. Either way, ultimatums in relationships - as in government or business - serve as a means to establish control (the opposite of freedom). This might make sense in business or government, but this is not an ingredient for healthy interpersonal relationships. Ultimatums set boundaries, which are useful, but they do it in a manipulative way, thereby destroying the climate of love and cooperation that should exist between individuals. In fact, one psychologist describes them as tactical nukes.
So whether we're talking countries or individuals, ultimatums are nuclear. They might start with good intention, but they are a powerful form of assault. They may be non-physical, but they are still assaults.
I'm reading The Help right now, by Kathryn Stockett. It's set in the 1960's when civil rights movements were strenghtening. Blacks and whites alike were given ultimatums to change their behaviors, or else... And we all know there were huge losses and costs that stemmed from those ultimatums. It was a complicated time, and I can't say unilaterally that we all would have been better off without any of those ultimatums, because I can't say I've done enough extensive research to make that claim. But I am quite sure that some lives would have been saved, and some families much happier, and some relationships would have been free to evolve naturally, if people had been able to work together to address their concerns and their needs and their desires, without threats of control or violence.
And that's really what our time on this planet is all about, according to our country's forefathers. And according to me. Life. Happiness. Freedom.
So let's avoid those nuclear ultimatums and figure out how to cooperate with one another, shall we?