By Philippe Roy
You’re thinking of using threats in a negotiation? Well, if you stick out your gun, you’d better be ready to shoot, otherwise you’re just an idiot with a gun in your hand! Here are the reasons why threats can be a dangerous game and why avoiding them will help you become a better negotiator
There is an abundance of literature on negotiation. This is not surprising at all; negotiation is everywhere. People negotiate salaries with their employers, the price of a house, the sale of a company, peace, a political alliance, agreements with unions and all sorts of other deals, regardless of their nature. A lot of content can be found on multiple topics: dispute resolution, win-win negotiation frameworks, communication skills, reservation price, cross-cultural negotiation, negotiation dynamics, interpersonal relationships and many other topics.
Interestingly, resources on the value of threats in negotiations are rarer. The psychology of threats is sometimes mentioned but as a secondary element, which is all the more surprising as it seems to be disconnected from what’s actually happening in real life. In most negotiations, tension is indeed frequently translated into verbal threats. Whilst tension is inevitable and even healthy, threats are very often counterproductive. People making threats rarely evaluate the consequences of their threats, not only for the other party but also for themselves. One could think that such a behaviour only applies to inexperienced negotiators, but it’s not the case. In fact, although they know it’s something to be avoided, even the most talented negotiators often make threats at some point when they conduct negotiations.
Whether you negotiate a multibillion-dollar agreement, a deal with your kids or the outcome of Brexit, here are four reasons why threatening your counterpart is probably a bad idea.
1. Don’t destroy your credibility
I’ll always remember the scene. I had just told my four-year-old daughter she would be punished if she didn’t listen to me – whatever unwritten family rules she had breached. Without panicking or even looking at me, she calmly replied that she was not worried about it. Because it was not the first time that I was threatening to punish her, and not once had I actually done it. Result: Daughter: 1 – Dad’s ego: 0.
And she was right! There is no point threatening someone – without even considering the ethical aspect of a threat – if you’re not prepared to execute that threat. Whatever you negotiate, whoever you negotiate with, you should always remember this principle: If you stick out your gun, you’d better be ready to shoot; otherwise, you’re just an idiot with a gun in your hand!
An extreme illustration of this principle is the negotiation between Ronald Reagan and the 13,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike in the US in 1981. The former president stated that this strike was illegal and he threatened to fire any employee who did not return to work within 48 hours. To the surprise of many observers, he indeed executed his threat by letting go more than 11,000 people. Had he not carried out his threat, he would have lost all credibility as a leader and a negotiator, and his political mandate would have been severely impacted.
This case remains an exception because, most of the time, threats are pronounced in a moment of emotional exhaustion, in the middle of endless and painful negotiations where frustration is getting the best of the negotiating teams. But the credibility of people uttering them becomes eroded and the outcome ends up being totally counterproductive.
2. Avoid the “Bozo Zone”
In the various negotiations I have conducted, I have noticed that threats are often attached to a big ask. Some negotiators have the quite irrational belief that, in order to make their ask believable, it has to be linked to a threat. The bigger the ask, the stronger the threat. If you don’t accept “this”, “that” will happen. One of the negotiations I led, several years ago, strictly followed this framework. At the very beginning of the kick-off meeting, the other negotiation team looked at us in a very dramatic way (imagine a scene from Once Upon a Time in the West, with the harmonica theme in the background) and told us: “This is what we want, and if we don’t have it we will stop working with you.” As brutal, confrontational and threatening as this message was, it turned out to be useless. Due to their lack of preparation, the threat they had come up with was totally unrealistic. We knew it; they didn’t. It was a meaningless threat without any common sense, disconnected from reality. We instantly knew that what they were asking would simply never happen, whether they worked with us or our competitors. Their ask was so ridiculous, it had a red nose like Bozo the Clown. In this case, they not only lost any kind of credibility, but this episode shaped the following stages of the negotiation to our advantage. If a threat is not credible, whether it’s real or not, it will have no impact on the negotiation.
3. Educate, rather than threaten
As politically incorrect as it may sound, there are situations where pronouncing a threat is not completely irrelevant. Because a given party has a strong BATNA*, it can theoretically afford to make a threat. This is what happened with the air traffic controllers’ strike in the US. Ronald Reagan had a plan B: using military controllers, supervisors and non-strikers. In other words, he was so confident that his alternative option would work, he didn’t need to negotiate any longer and could afford to make a threat.
However, if we focus on more traditional and less confrontational negotiations, how you articulate your message is more important than ever. Rather than making a threat, which can often be emotionally toxic and make your counterpart both defensive and aggressive, you may want to explain and educate. Why not be transparent and tell the other party that, whilst you’d be delighted to have the opportunity to reach an agreement, you have a very satisfying alternative option. And unless the negotiated agreement gets better than this option, you’d have no interest in pursuing the discussion. Another illustration of this approach is given by Margaret A. Neale, Professor of Management at Stanford. In her book Getting More of What You Want, Neale shares the true story of one of her colleagues who received a better offer from another business school. He then decided to go and see the Dean with a threat: either match the offer, or I will leave. It turned out that the Dean rejected the threat because the cost of complying with it would have been way too high (there was actually a spillover risk that other professors would behave the same way). On the other hand, Neale explains that another faculty member shared her competing offer with the Dean, simply asking him what her compensation would be the following year. Because the ask was not articulated as a threat, the Dean didn’t have to worry about having a reputation of saying yes to threats. In parallel, for the faculty member, it took the pressure away from having to accept the outside offer, as well as the risk of losing face.
The key here is to convey your message calmly and respectfully without giving your counterpart the impression that you are twisting their arm. You present your options; they decide.
4. It’s a small world…
We live in a world where reputation is more critical than ever. Whether you’re a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a corporate, political or non-profit leader, the multiple negotiations you’re going to lead will define your personal brand as a negotiator; because the habits we develop and the behavioural patterns we deploy when negotiating contribute to shaping our reputation. Whatever your field is, if you become the person who keeps making threats but never executes them or who continuously makes irrelevant threats, then you’re losing all credibility for future negotiations, in your market, industry or ecosystem.
Think about the Brexit deal. How many times have the respected parties declared they were ready to have a no-deal, threatening the other party publicly with stopping all the discussions?
In an interview published in the French newspaper Le Figaro**, Vincent Eurieult, Professor of Negotiation at ESCP Business School and Sciences Po Paris, explains why Boris Johnson has never been entirely credible when making threats in the Brexit negotiations. Unlike some negotiators, who remain unpredictable until the last moment, suggesting they’re able to make any kind of unexpected extreme decisions, including a no-deal in this case, Boris Johnson’s primary intent has always simply consisted of staying prime minister as long as possible and remaining in charge. His reputation, identity and personal brand attributes have stopped him from being credible when conducting extreme and mad threats. The reality is that, despite those forceful statements, negotiations never stopped.
As the UK begins to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries in the world, how credible will its negotiators be when they start making threats again?
About the Author
Philippe Roy is a global corporate executive specialised in strategic partnerships management, influence strategies and international negotiations. He has gained his experience working in global leadership roles for tech start-ups as well as Fortune 100 companies (IBM, Motorola, American Express). His views and opinions are personal.
*In their popular book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton introduced the concept of Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) as being the option left when parties are unable to come to an agreement.
**Article written by Alexis Feertchak and published in Le Figaro on Oct 9th, 2019, “Boris Johnson est-il un bon négociateur?” (Is Boris Johnson a good negotiator?) https://www.lefigaro.fr/international/boris-johnson-est-il-un-bon-negociateur-20191009