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Negotiation and the ghost of Machiavelli


Whether you prefer to be feared or loved, new research suggests that the important thing at the negotiation table is that you don’t try to be nice.

Several years ago, a newly married friend told me she was reading The Art of War, Sun Tzu’s masterly 6th Century BC book on military strategy, in search of ideas on how she should handle her mother-in-law. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever heard.

A few years later, I relayed this story to her husband after a game of squash. He told me that it was funny because he had recently read Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, another seminal historical text on the strategic use of power, in a desperate search for strategies on how to keep his mother and wife from destroying each other. True story. Ain’t life grand?

Conflict and diplomacy are common themes in history, life and business. Machiavelli, the famous svengali in service of the Florentine Republic during the Renaissance, posed the question to anyone wielding power over others: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?

This conundrum, from the pages of The Prince, has divided Kings, CEOs and pubescent McDonald’s drive thru managers alike over the years.

Machiavelli concluded that, if a leader cannot be both, it is better to be feared than loved. But that philosophy has fallen from vogue in recent decades as the information economy superseded the industrial economy and leaders realised that winning the love of their charges can inspire creativity, initiative and loyalty in addition to discipline and productivity. Of course, not everyone is on board with this.

However, new research reveals that, when it comes to negotiations, attempting to win the love of the other party is not the most effective strategy.

Mara Olekalns, Melbourne Business School Professor of Management (Negotiations), found that effective negotiators convey competence — and that being nice only encourages deception and opportunistic betrayal by the other party.

She also found that the most likely trigger for deception in a negotiation is when one party perceives a power imbalance and thus a chance for exploitation. Being “nice” in a negotiation is likely to be perceived by the other party as a tactic to conceal information or motive, leading to a downward spiral of suspicion and concealment by both parties.

According to Olekalns, “My research shows that positive emotions increases creativity and encourages greater risk taking, and decreases the extent to which individuals scrutinise information. Deception requires creativity, risk and is assisted by the belief that the other party might be less likely to scrutinise information.”

Clearly, Machiavelli’s ghost sits at every negotiation table. So how can you improve your chances of negotiating a favourable outcome?

Tips for effective negotiations

  • Negotiate with parties who have the same level of decision-making power as you. A power imbalance breeds superficiality and contempt.
  • Do your research. Never sit down to negotiate with someone without first finding out everything you can about them, their organisation and their position. Do your best to anticipate everything they might say and why. Know the history.
  • Volunteer something personal. This breaks the ice of formality and humanises you, increasing the chances that the other party will shed their armour. Make sure it is appropriate, though.
  • Don’t get emotionally involved. Focus on the facts rather than personalities.
  • Listen, listen, listen. The more you listen, the more chance the other party will feel like their position is being heard.
  • Summarise the other party’s position. This demonstrates empathy without risking the appearance of glibness. It also reinforces that you’ve been listening rather than just silent.
  • Ask for more than you expect, but have a fallback position. A negotiation where one party has no wiggle room is not a negotiation — it is a declaration of war. Be reasonable, be open without being foolish, and enter the negotiation knowing the points that you are willing to move on and the points that are deal-breakers.
  • Be patient. Negotiations can take several attempts to arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution. The landscape can change dramatically over time, uncovering new priorities and opportunities. So be patient and keep your eye on the horizon rather than egos.

Paul Ryan is Editor of Anthill Magazine.