Dealing With the Devil

June 30, 2017British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 refused to negotiate with Hitler. President George W. Bush in 2001 refused to negotiate with the Taliban.

Nelson Mandela, by contrast, reached out in 1985 to negotiate with South Africa’s white government, one that enforced a racist regime and had imprisoned him for over two decades. And President Barack Obama negotiated with Iran, which supports terrorist groups.

“Should you bargain with the devil?” is the question in the provocative book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate and When to Fight, by Harvard Program on Negotiation Chair Robert Mnookin.

Mnookin’s book transcends war and peace, offering lessons that can be applied to everyday situations. After all, who hasn’t felt betrayed by a business partner, friend, or family member, and felt like hitting back in lieu of talking?

Mnookin advises the following in determining whether to engage, with my own analysis here too.

1. Systematically evaluate the costs and benefits

Our knee-jerk instinctive reaction toward negotiating with a devil may be “Absolutely not. He’s a devil.” This may overlook, however, your interests that may be satisfied with a less reactive, more strategic evaluation.

Mnookin suggests an initial framework to help make this decision, largely derived from the classic Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by my law school professor Roger Fisher and William Ury.

He suggests the following, which I relate to my Five Golden Rules of Negotiation for the benefit of longtime readers.

Identify the parties involved and their fundamental interests (a crucial element of Golden Rule One: Information is Power-So Get It!);

Consider each side’s alternatives to negotiation (the major component of Golden Rule Two: Maximize Your Leverage. I call alternatives Plan Bs - Plan A being a negotiated agreement and Plan Bs the result if you don’t negotiate);

Evaluate the costs involved if you negotiate (costs constitute an independent standard underlying “fair” agreements – Golden Rule Three: Employ “Fair” Objective Criteria);

Brainstorm whether any options/agreements exist that would better satisfy the parties’ interests than their Plan Bs (evaluating options relative to your Plan B involve Golden Rule One (interests and options) relative to Golden Rule Two (Plan Bs)); and

Assess whether and how any deal can be implemented (can you trust the devil to fulfill its commitments and/or enforce them independently through courts or other mechanisms (whether a deal will stick and trust factors fit within Golden Rule One).

I would add one piece of advice to Mnookin’s. This strategic evaluation and preparation make sense for all potentially significant negotiations – not just those with “devils.”

2. Get advice from third parties about your Plan Bs and these factors

I’m a big fan of strategic brainstorming and asking trusted advisors, friends and experts for advice before negotiating. Mnookin recommends this in determining whether to even engage. I agree.

Doing this helps us make more reasoned evaluations and avoid emotional traps that can cloud our judgment in stressful situations. Differing perspectives and ways of thinking can also lead to better analyses and conclusions.

There’s no downside to requesting advice here and a potentially big upside.

3. When in doubt – presume to negotiate

If you’ve done your strategic analysis – your advisors disagree – and you’re still unsure what to do - Mnookin suggests you negotiate.

“Wait,” you respond. “Shouldn’t there be a presumption against negotiating?” “After all,” Mnookin writes, “this is the Devil we’re talking about!”

No. Why? Because “negative traps,” according to Mnookin, can distort your thinking and analysis. Traps include tribalism, demonization, dehumanization, moralism, zero-sum thinking, the psychological impulse to fight or flee, and the call to battle.

A guideline that makes you articulate the reasons NOT to negotiate has great value.

4. Be especially pragmatic if you’re representing others

Finally, personal moral intuitions and morality should play a role. It may simply be morally repugnant for you to engage with a “devil.” And going against your morals has real costs. Despite the pragmatic factors urging you to engage, Mnookin notes, deciding not to negotiate “based on moral intuitions may be virtuous, courageous, and even wise.”

However, he recommends this only if you “alone bear the risk of carrying on the fight.”

Your personal morality should not override the above factors when your decision directly impacts others who may have different moral judgments and who rely on you to decide.

Business executives representing shareholders, union representatives on behalf of workers, and political leaders representing constituents should not decide based on their personal morals, writes Mnookin.

Latz’s Lesson: Whether to negotiate with the devil presents a devilish dilemma. Solve this by strategic preparation, relying on outside advice, presuming to negotiate, and incorporating morality and agency issues into the equation.