“No dilemma in negotiation is more problematic or painful than that of whether or not to negotiate with perceived evil.” William Uri

The idea of good and evil is rooted deeply in the human psyche but whether we see angels or devils depends a lot on our perspective, as the Dutch artist M. C. Escher demonstrated in this image, Angels and Demons. Which do you see first?

Angles and Devils 1941 Escher

The man who headed the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Philip Zimbardo,  uses this image in his riveting TED Talk where he points to the easy line between good and evil and the capacity of most of us to choose whether to cross it. The experiment in a prison scenario turned ordinary people into perpetrators and victims. (We’ll all be talking about it soon as it’s the subject of a new Hollywood movie!)

Do you see a parallel between the evil behaviours described in the video and the everyday bullying and evil behaviours in business? We do. Let’s define them and talk about how best to deal with the devil.

The decision about whether to sit at the table with someone demonstrating ‘evil’ behaviour depends on your perspective. But there’s one position you should never adopt. And that’s compromising your values in order to get the deal.

So what is evil? Zimbardo describes it as the exercise of power to hurt psychologically, physically, or to injure a person’s ideas or humanity. But he attributes evil behaviour to systems which create the opportunity or the pressure to behave in an evil way, and not to bad people. Zimbardo was shocked but not surprised at the abuses in the US prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq; where we saw people in extraordinary circumstances behave in evil ways. He says it’s not bad apples but a bad ‘barrel’ or system, which is to blame.

We see parallels in the abuses at Australian offshore detention centres. And negotiation tables pretty much anywhere.

Where does evil behaviour come from?

Evil behaviour arises where an organisation encourages or allows bad behaviour. The 1960’s Milgram experiments on obedience showed that most people would electrocute and kill others if they had no personal responsibility. It teaches us that a bad system will justify bad behaviour in the individual.

Leadership matters. In a negotiation, if another person sets a bad example, that behaviour will be reinforced in others. This is particularly so if the bad example is an authority.

Corporations often fail to recognise they’ve created a bad system and don’t see that there is a flaw in the design of the negotiation: what you set up to negotiate, who you choose, and what you do or don’t say in the lead up to a meeting. There’s a need to set the parameters for negotiation so it doesn’t fall down the cracks.

Secondly, negotiators need to plan for how they are going to deal with bad behaviour if it arises. And if they identify that a bad system has been created, they need to know what they are going to do.

All of us have the potential to be a devil or a hero. I believe that people are naturally good and can learn and unlearn evil behaviours. First, we must distinguish between the person and their behaviour in just the same way that we see that children are not inherently naughty but may have naughty behaviour. Often when we see ‘bad’ across the negotiating table, we’re seeing a reflection of the culture of an organisation to misuse its power, and not the real person who sits opposite.

Zimbardo refers to the misuse of power and that’s relevant to us as negotiators. It includes:

  • Forcing your counterpart to say yes to you, knowing that means a no to themselves;
  • Dictating the outcome because of imbalance of power between the parties; and
  • Focusing on the outcome and forgetting the needs of your counterpart.

Evil at the table can be bare-knuckled or delivered in a velvet glove, but it’s still a violent exercise of power. You know you are going to hurt them financially, reduce their margin, and damage their business. But you just don’t care. It’s not personal, it’s business.

In fact, it’s bad for both. It’s bad for business and personal relationships. Bullying, threatening, and attack happen a lot in negotiations and worsen when the stakes get higher. We have seen many deals which were not sustainable because they forced concessions on one side. This can drive a business to the grave.

Giving in

Negotiation is a trading process, so you give to get. Never make unilateral concessions. Don’t give in for the sake of peace. Some people may think, ‘If I say yes they’ll leave me alone’. But the reality is that the moment you concede a little, the game will step up a notch and you’ll be pushed to concede a lot. I’ve seen this so often. The people who received the concession pushed harder and asked louder for more.

“Let’s shake the machine to see if it releases more cash,” they’ll say. You as a negotiator are only as good as your last concession.
The risks in making unilateral concessions are:

  • A member of your negotiation team who is willing to capitulate becomes your weakest link;
  • Goodwill gestures always backfire; and
  • Conceding for the sake of the relationship damages it, because it creates a precedent.

What does it mean to be heroic at the table?

“Heroes are those who can somehow resist the power of the situation and act out of noble motives, or behave in ways that do not demean others when they easily can.” Philip Zimbardo

Zimbardo has explored the idea of heroism and is vehement that all of us have the ability to act heroically. The first question is whether you should be at the table at all. Should Churchill have negotiated with Hitler? The first position is to establish your own values and boundaries. Draw clear lines and make sure your counterpart knows and respect them.

Never reward bad behaviour at the table. For example, I won’t engage with someone who’s shouting.
Challenge the merit of what is being asked. Check in on the mandate: does it fit my values? Can I be aggressive 9-5 then go home and be a loving parent or partner? Yes, we see that often, but we also know that it creates personal dissonance.

The next step is to think about how to counter ‘evil’ behaviour and there are clear measures for this. The first is to separate the problem from the person. But importantly, ask yourself whether the problem here is the person or an evil system.

Given there is a potential for good or evil, and we argue that a bad system triggers bad behaviour, it’s necessary to have someone who’s willing to stand up and highlight the bad behaviour as inappropriate. This person is a hero.

“In order to stand out, you must first stand up.” Paul Smith, CEO Future Directors Institute

Standing out as a hero

At the Trusted Negotiator, we are here to support heroic behaviours at the negotiation table and to help business leaders expand their consciousness for better decisions.

The process starts internally with the individual. For me, it was when I realised I was being asked to negotiate a deal I would not do. The first person you might have to negotiate with could be your own manager or a colleague who is asking you to choose between personal values and corporate obedience.

Author Robert Mnookin (see this month’s book review for more) has some top tips. He says we should get advice when evaluating the alternatives to the deal on the table. Don’t do the analysis alone.

We say no matter what the system is and no matter what practices have been established, and even if many people are normalising bad behaviours, you still have the freedom to say no. Getting to yes may be your goal, but no-one can force you there.

"Imagine a world where the men in business not only come home with more value in the deal, but with a new sense of trust and respect as a society?"

Fabian Courtaux, Trusted Negotiator