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Negotiation in a crisis – is it different?

Negotiation in a crisis – is it different?

How many negotiations are taking place as you read this article?  I would suggest hundreds, if not thousands.  They will involve, policy, law, money, goods & services and all of the other variables that one would expect in any negotiation.  What sets apart negotiation in June 2020 from other times is the fact that many of these negotiations will (literally) involve life and death decisions.  Conversations taking place right now in board rooms and presidents’ offices about social distancing, remote working and when to re-open schools and shops will all have an effect on the way this pandemic plays out.

Whilst global conflicts have confronted humanity before, the Coronavirus (CV) pandemic is the first global ‘war’ during which mankind has all been on the same side.  In times such as these a great deal of decision making is done through negotiation.  In many countries around the world, decisions are being made less unilaterally and more through collaboration.  A crisis demands this, particular in Western Democracies.  Even in countries where governments and presidents are able to act unilaterally, the politicians will doubtless be negotiating with the scientists.  

It is often noted that during times of crisis time appears to pass differently.  This phenomenon is usually explained by the fact that we tend to view time during a crisis in events rather than days, hours and minutes; consequently it is human nature that makes us focus on the immediate – whether this is down to genes or evolution, we are hardwired to deal with the closest threat.  In the UK, the government’s daily media briefing has punctuated the last 12 weeks; the key events of those briefings being the number of deaths in the previous 24 hours and their impact on the cumulative total.  Manifestly every day has become the same.  

Effective negotiators know that they should be thinking beyond the ‘immediate’, they should be considering the longer term; starting with the end in mind.  However, in times of crisis we can be blinded by the present and, to some extent, see looking further ahead as almost inappropriate – after all tomorrow may never come.  The Iraq war of 2003, shows what focussing on the immediate task can do.  There appears to have been little consideration beyond the here and now (dismantling Saddam’s regime) which lead to the blood bath of the following 8 years.  To further compound the issues of time and immediacy, during any panic there are multiple stakeholders who will have their own priorities and doubtless their own view of time.  The scientists and experts will be driven by evidence and the desire to have all of the knowledge they can possibly acquire.  The public will be led by media hype, politicians by electoral cycles and businesses by the desire to get operations running again.  

The successful negotiator will not ignore the medium and long term.  As difficult as it is, that view of the potential outcomes and longer term impacts of what one negotiates for within the current pandemic, will prove invaluable in your planning during the immediate.

Fortunately negotiators are not required to choose between the immediate and the long term.  This is not binary decision.  

Let’s say you are the head teacher of a UK based secondary school – you negotiate with the school’s governors and the local education authority on a number of issues.  Due to CV you have decided, in the first instance, to send the staff and pupils home indefinitely and ride out the storm.  Clearly your immediate concern is the health and well being of your staff and pupils.  If we look at this from the perspective of the students’ (and their parents) in exam years, they might be wondering what will happen to exams (and grades) and how this will impact the future in terms of university admission and job prospects.  Their view is longer term; your’s is immediate.

Let’s step back and look at options in the cold light of day…

In any planning process and subsequent negotiations to decide how the school should react to CV, the immediate issue is safety, this is closely followed by how exams (and grading) will be dealt with; in third place will be the education of those students not yet on the exam treadmill.  You have a number of choices.  If the issue looks like it might be short-lived you could just close the school and give sufficient homework to cover the period.  If it looks like it might go on for 2-3 weeks you could offer online teaching, beyond 3 weeks you could opt for full online classes and remote exams.  As you are considering all of these options you should plan and negotiate within the context of  short, medium and long term.  As a parent of children who should have been doing critical exams this year.  I think that a focus on the immediate (shut the schools and don’t do exams) has come at the expense of the longer term.  Clearly protecting life is the priority, but looking further ahead may have changed the approach to planning and the way in which options were assessed.    

At some point the impact of CV will lessen.  Simultaneously you need to consider a route to returning to some form of normality; what some refer to as the ‘new normal’.  At what point do you get your teaching staff back in?  How about your administrators and cleaners?  When does any form of on-site activity begin?  Which year groups need to be in a formal teaching environment first?  The list of considerations is potentially endless.  Do not dismiss any without careful analysis and always consider the short, medium and long term.  

Along with the focus on the immediate, the nature of negotiation during a crisis would also appear to be characterised by a requirement to work more collaboratively.  In the UK one might describe the situation in which Tesco found itself in 2014-15 as being a crisis.  The impact on that business led to the development of a number of strategic partnerships between Tesco and some of its key suppliers – their crisis delivered increased collaboration.  

This is a prudent approach.  A primary response to CV by any organisation has to be minimising risk and avoiding catastrophic failure.  The problem during a crisis is that organisations, led by human nature, concentrate on avoiding loss rather than maximising gain.  The benefits of maximising gain, which are well know to the skilled negotiator, somehow evade them when the focus becomes avoidance of mutual loss rather than seeking mutual gain. 

In times of crisis the relationship between leadership and negotiation becomes much stronger; the negotiator that leads the process will ensure that it conforms to their plan.  You are in control.  Your actions will allow you to lead the other party into being more open and collaborative.  Your analysis and planning will allow you and your organisation to adhere to the timings that you set.  The successful negotiator will lift their gaze from the immediate and consider the longer term impact of both their decisions and actions.

“Begin with the end in mind”

Stephen Covey

change, coronavirus, leadership, negotiation, resilience