Negotiating with real or phantom adversaries?

In many negotiation situations, we humans act on the basis of what can best be described as an intuitive sense regarding who wields decision making rights in a group setting. After identifying such people, we often initiate the negotiation with that person through an intermediary. This implies that we identify those (we believe) wield influence with those who possess decision making rights with regards the decisions we seek. Examples abound:

  • Children learn at a young age to get mom to speak to dad about something that dad might not support, initially. (I’m certain that in certain situations it works the other way round too.)

  • Many subordinates speak to immediate superiors when when they wish to make a request to a superior’s superior.

  • Sales people sometimes speak to lower level employees in a company who they hope may be able to give them insight into the mindset, character, behavior, or priorities of those they intend to negotiate with.

  • Informal diplomatic channels are sometimes opened up by one of two parties who are in a state conflict, to see if the other is interested in direct formal negotiations. Those who are approached for these “pre-negotiations” are often people who possess a certain degree of influence (and credibility) with actual decision makers.

  • When we attempt to negotiate with someone we don’t know, we seek out friends or acquaintances who know that person or know someone who knows that person.

Very often, the effort to initiate a negotiation through an intermediary is an expression of a lack of negotiation mastery. In other situations, it is actually an expression of negotiation mastery. In all such situations, we make our decisions based on what we “see” regarding the intermediary’s knowledge, influence, standing, or credibility with the decision maker. Sadly, in complex negotiation projects, our intuition can be wrong, and we can easily be led astray by our own assumptions, expectations, neediness, or invalid goals. They blind us to reality and prevent us from seeing the actual decision makers, and negotiating with them. A decision making process that is not built on reality necessarily leads us to waste our budget in negotiations with phantom adversaries.

The inadequacy of formal decision making processes

In many complex negotiations, the formal decision making process must be seen and understood. It must serve an important orienting function – to provide us with certain landmarks to assist us get our bearings with regards the lay of the land. It may serve as a guide, but that cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty at the outset. This is simply because the formal decision making processes in business, politics, and in many other group settings cannot, by rule, be designed with a view of every conceivable situation that may arise. One such conceivable situation that was not foreseen might well be the negotiation you are involved in.

The organizational chart or a formal decision making process provides perfect cover for those with real influence to hide and exert their influence from behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the dutiful negotiator may be negotiating with a host of people, blissfully unaware of who is calling the shots. This is something that can be seen clearly after a complex negotiation project has ended in agreement. If you retrace your footsteps, you may be surprised to see how the actual decisions emerged, who made them, who influenced them, and how the decision making process diverged from whatever was on the organizational chart.

Finding the forces of influence and building the decision making process for an agreement is one of the most demanding challenges that negotiators face. Doing this in a conscious way requires negotiating mastery. It is also one at which most people fail. They then render their own efforts useless, and squander their own negotiation budgets. Given how taxing this can be physically, mentally, and emotionally, it’s a double waste – wasting your budget on a misguided/ignorant effort that was doomed to failure from the outset.

The failure to identify and negotiate with the real adversaries

One sees how regularly splinter groups seek to derail an agreement that is being negotiated by warring parties. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the current instability sweeping numerous parts of the Middle East; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the state of tension and conflict between India and Pakistan; the conflicts that wracked Northern Ireland; the conflict on the ground and the proxy wars being fought in Syria; the conflict raging in the Great Lakes region of Southern Africa, and many more, show, among other things, the reactions of those impacted by decisions taken at the negotiation table. They may then feel provoked to undermine or oppose those decisions.

In business/organizational settings, ignoring or excluding those who have a stake in the status quo, are impacted by a change to the status quo, or are feeling rattled by the prospect of a change to the status quo, will create tomorrow’s problems, today. The temporal aspect of negotiation – negotiations occur within the continuum of the past, present, and future – means that far more people than those at the table are impacting, and impacted by, the negotiation. The agreement reached today will be implemented tomorrow. Remember, too, that the pain that the adversary is facing may easily be the result of ineffective decisions taken yesterday. Nobody likes to be held responsible for such decisions. Even fewer will actually own up and accept responsibility. In an era where CEOs of multi-billion dollar concerns are replaced regularly as a result of the adverse consequences of the decisions they took or did not take, everybody else necessarily feels insecure and expendable. This can have very grave consequences for the agreement being negotiated.

The revengeful “no”

If a person or group has a stake in a negotiation and feels excluded from it, they can feel like their right to veto is being overridden. They will then express that right to veto how, where, and when they can. Count on it!

This “no” might be expressed in the negotiation you are currently involved in but might have its origin in another negotiation you are unaware of and which may not have had anything to do with you. Such business deals may never come to fruition because those who are saying “no” have not been identified or negotiated with. As a result, the vision driving their “no” remains unknown while simultaneously preventing this negotiation from moving forward.

Such a “no” might also be expressed during the implementation of the deal. An M&A that is announced with much fanfare might fail when those who live with the reality of conflicting work cultures express a very individual and collective “no” that undermines the rational justification for the deal in the first place. If you don’t welcome a “no” you will crash against it.

Once these emotional reactions kick in, every rational justification made by those who “created” that change will fall flat, and perhaps, even increase the intensity of the. This is regardless of whether that change is the fruit of a negotiation or not. It is often a reflex action that drips with emotion. Essentially, these reactions are a “no” that ought to have been engaged at the negotiation table, but were not. Every “no” that is not acknowledged will create emotional pressure that will manifest somewhere or the other. Such a “no” is driven by vision – a vision that inspires fear, uncertainty, stress, increased effort, a feeling of being controlled, a feeling of being excluded or devalued, a reaction against harm that may befall them etc. Many of these reactions may be the fruit of assumptions and expectations that have no basis in actual fact. But the fact that those at the negotiation table did not engage these adversaries means that they are left to negotiate with their own phantom adversaries. This in turn affects everybody else. Thus, if you end up negotiating with “phantom adversaries” your real adversaries may also end up, simultaneously, negotiating with “phantom” adversaries.

Discover reality

If you don’t fall prey to your neediness and your own expectations and assumptions, you will be able to discover and see “who” and “what” is standing in the way of each “yes” and “who” and “what” is driving each “no”. In the process, you will be both discovering (perhaps fractured) vision, and building unified vision.

The building of unified vision is mandatory if you wish to get an agreement that sticks. Many negotiation settings are complex. They may or may not be devoid of politicking and dysfunction. Even if they are not driven by the competing visions born of dysfunction, they will likely be composed of people working with the “partial vision” of their immediate situations, circumstances, and priorities. Many people therefore have their plates full. When you show up, they are not going to drop everything and give you their undivided attention and/support. How often does that happen when someone appears to negotiate with you, your organization, or a group you are a part of?

You must identify those who ought to say “yes”, those who can say “no”, and those whose “maybe” ought to be converted to a definite “no” or “yes”. If the “maybe” is converted to a “no”, it must subsequently be converted to a “yes”. If you don’t engage those who must say “yes”, those whose “no” must be converted to “yes”, and those whose “maybe” is holding things up, you cannot get to the agreement you seek.

Vision drives decisions. In complex negotiation settings, you must think: “Unified and harmonized vision drives decisions”. This is what will lead you to seek and find answers to “Whose vision?” side by side with answers to “What vision?” As you seek to build unified and harmonized vision, you ought to constantly ask yourself:

1) Who is responsible for a particular decision?

2) Who is impacted by a particular decision?

3) Who may be attempting to influence a particular decision?

4) Who is living with the pain of the status quo?

5) Who is benefiting from, responsible for, or defensive about the status quo?

6) What am I missing?

7) Who am I missing?

Reality dictates what the decision making process ought to be

We must base and build our efforts on reality or crash against it. The nature and extent of the problems that bring parties to the negotiation table; negotiating with those who are actually responsible for decisions; involving those who have influence over decisions or who are impacted by decisions – all these are what defines the reality that comprise and compose the answers to “Whose vision?” and “What vision?”.

Ultimately, reality dictates who your real adversaries are. If you are attentive, it will point them out to you. If you are not, both you and your real adversaries may end up negotiating with phantom ones.

Please share your thoughts with us and comment below.



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