The High-Ground Manoeuvre: A Better Tactic to Justify Your Position

Flipkart is the Indian version of Amazon. Back in 2014, Flipkart had its first Big Billion Day, its biggest ever sale day on October, 6th. People were thrilled, excited, and exuberant.

Unfortunately, the traffic was way more than Flipkart had predicted, and it brought the whole site down. Big Billion Day lasted only a couple of hours.

But, keeping true to its reputation and philosophy of great customer service, Flipkart went ahead and apologised to everyone. “Yesterday was a big day for us. And we really wanted it to be a great day for you. But at the end of the day, we know that your experience was less than pleasant. We did not live up to the promises we made and for that we are really and truly sorry.”

Just four years prior to Flipkart’s Big Billion Day mishap, in 2010, Apple came under the radar because of its “Antennagate” issue. Turns out, if you held the iPhone 4 in a certain way, it would drop your call. People were pissed. There were heavy backlashes from customers. Steve Jobs called a press conference to calm things down. People expected an apology for the screw-up.

In the press conference however, Jobs said, “We’re not perfect. Phones are not perfect. We all know that. But we want to make our users happy.” In case you are wondering, this was not an apology. Instead, it was a classic manoeuvring technique, called The High-Ground Manoeuvre.

What was supposed to be a cliched apology turned into something else all together. A public apology is a courageous and honest thing to do, but most people do it in a “please kick me” way. This only generates memes, comic strips, and low sales. If Jobs would have done it that way, the next headline would have been, “Is the iPhone 4 a dud?”

High-Ground Manoeuvre, on the other hand, takes the debate out of the details, and elevates it to the high ground where there is no disagreement.

Jobs changed the entire argument in a couple of words. With “We’re not perfect,” he displayed courage by acknowledging Apple’s shortcomings. “Phones are not perfect,” is the strategic message from a master persuader. From iPhone issues, this very line shifts the conversation towards smart phone issues in general. “We all know that,” adds social proof, and makes it seem a much more obvious fact. “But we want to make our users happy,” talks about the ethos of the company, and also about the steps they are going to take to mitigate this issue.

Only nineteen words, perfectly crafted, were required to change the minds of the people completely.

The term High-Ground Manoeuvre was coined by Scott Adams. And it is very likely that you’ve used it extensively without even knowing it. When you say something like, “Nothing is perfect,” or “To err is human,” to justify a point or counter an opponent’s point, you are applying this manoeuvre.

Notice how simple and vague these sentences are. A complex or specific sentence only invites critical thinking. The goal of this manoeuvre is to end the logical argument by appealing to emotion. To say something very abstract upon which we all can agree.


The ideal situation to use High-Ground Manoeuvre is when you have to defend or justify yourself. When you are being cornered, this is the trump card you should implement.

A year back, while working on a project I took some business decisions that didn’t pan out well in the end. I didn’t weigh in a couple of things, and had been kind of careless. Yes, severe time crunch was an issue, but that’s the dumbest of all the reasons one can give to the CEO. I decided to say the following instead:

“We are a startup. In order to move fast, sometimes things break. We both know that. What we should do is not repeat the same mistakes.” BOOM! High-Ground Manoeuvre deployed.

To break it down, the strategy always involves two steps:

  1. Move from Specific to General: “We are a startup,” and “In order to move fast, sometimes things break.” Instead of talking about the specific instances of the project, I moved to a more general concept that covers the situation.
  2. State an Unassailable Principle: “What we should do is not repeat the same mistakes.” How can you argue against that? You can’t!

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about startups in general. That’s what Jobs did as well.

The same can be used when somebody is trying to punch holes in your game plan. “We are here to innovate. For that, we gotta try new things. To come to conclusions beforehand without even trying is a sign of overconfidence. Overconfidence is the opposite of innovation.”

Next time onwards, before getting ready to pitch an idea, or getting into a debate, have a strategy in place that will turn low-level disagreements into a high-level agreement. It’s immensely helpful.

A word of caution. Never make the High-Ground Manoeuvre your default tactic. People would be able to see through you if you start to misuse it, or overuse it. It’s not a getaway tactic to pull you out of difficult situations. Neither is it an excuse for you to underperform, and not deliver. Keep your personal ethics intact. Use this tactic only when you have put genuine effort, but things didn’t turn out well. Apple wasn’t deliberately trying to sell defective iPhones. Keep that in mind. Use this manoeuvre judiciously.

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