There it is again. In the New York Times today, William Daley, President Obama's new Chief of Staff, is described on the front page as "A Tough, Decisive Negotiator." If you read the article, they call him a "skilled negotiator" who is "blunt yet charming." Former Vice President Walter Mondale, says that Daley is "tough, but not a bully." Does tough really equal effective? No, I don't think so. You can be demanding and unyielding, but not necessarily effective. The way to judge someone's negotiation effectiveness is by looking at the results they achieve (as compared to the mandate they had when they sat down at the bargaining table). The press seems to confuse style with capability.
This is important. All kinds of organizations, both public and private, depend on official and unofficial negotiators to achieve their interests. They need to select the right people for key negotiation assignments, and they should reward their most effective negotiators so they send the right message through their ranks. If they select only negotiators with an adversarial (or bombastic) style, they are likely to be disappointed. And, if they reward individuals for how they are viewed by the "other side," rather than for the results they achieve, they will be sending the wrong message and hurting themselves in the long run.
Why is the press (and, I'll admit, the world-at-large) so enamored of seemingly tough negotiators? My hunch is that they don't know much about what actually goes in on high-level negotiating sessions. They imagine something like a shoot-out, with one fighter, still standing at the end -- having won, and the other dead on the ground. Those with actual experience know that the final outcome in most business, governmental and inter-personal negotiations is usually an agreement that both sides are prepared to live with. Otherwise, implementation is difficult, if not impossible. Anyone bludgeoned into an unfair agreement will drag their heels when it comes time to do what they promised. They'll look for every excuse not to do what they were forced or tricked into accepting. Experienced negotiators, on the other hand, know that their goal is to work out something that meets key interests on both sides; that is, something better for all parties than no agreement. While stubbornness might, at times, be a virtue, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement usually requires listening hard so you can figure out what's most important to the other side, and then inventing a low-cost way of meeting their interests in exchange for their meeting yours. Stubbornness is rarely a substitute for inventiveness.
Even inexperienced negotiators can be taught how to handle overly-demanding counterparts -- just remain quiet while they unload all their unreasonable demands and talk themselves out. Mild-mannered negotiators (i.e. those who not perceived as "tough" by the press or by higher-ups in their own organization) know that if they come to the table with a clear sense of their own interests, and proposals that meet the other side's interests pretty well and their own very well, they can be successful. There's credible research by Gerald Williams and others to prove that those with cooperative negotiating styles can get everything they want from those with highly competitive styles as long as they come prepared (and are appropriately empowered by their organization). Style and outcome are not linked.
So, all this talk of toughness-- and we see it especially in international relations where those with cowboy mentalities and highly competitive styles are expected to outdo those with cultural styles that are more low-key and cooperative, is rarely a good predictor of what's going to happen. The real issue is how well schooled in negotiation theory and practice the individual negotiators are, not what their style is. If organizations, particularly companies and governments, noted in writing ahead of time what the important interests are that they want their negotiator to achieve, they would have an easy way of determining whether or not their negotiators were effective. They would soon discover that the best negotiators are those who can find creative ways of meeting their organization's interests while meeting the interests of their counterparts simultaneously. That's a good indicator of success, not how adamant or unyielding they appear to be.
I'd love to see a newspaper headline that highlights a government or industry appointee's past ability to meet the interests on their side of the table while improving relationships with their negotiating counterparts. That's someone I'd want to hire.
Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.
Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.
From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world.
Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.
Additional articles by Larry Susskind