Trump, Korea and Dealing with Irrational Negotiators

We pointed out in our recent newsletter that there are always different ways of looking at world events. The pessimist sees Brexit turmoil, a struggling UK health service, conflict in the Middle East and the threat of nuclear Armageddon hanging over us all.

The optimist thinks that while North and South Korea are sorting out how to combine bobsleigh and ice hockey teams, they’re probably too busy to bomb each other to bits. The world economy grew ahead of all predictions last year, and a higher proportion of the world’s people live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

But let’s go back to Korea, and we mentioned in the newsletter President Trump’s negotiation approach with Kim Jong-un. Trump has got a lot of criticism for his Twitter based “my button is bigger than yours” approach, but a little bit of me wonders whether he has got this right and many experts are wrong in this case.

Negotiating with an illogical, irrational opponent is not easy, as many of us in procurement will know. I remember a senior account manager from a major supplier whose approach whenever I raised a tricky issue was to tell me every detail of her personal problems. It was hard to know quite how to respond! Equally, it is sometimes hard to know how to act with the “threatening” negotiator – the one whose basic approach is “if you don’t agree, we will cut off supply / tell your CEO you’re an idiot / burn your factory down”!

Kim Jong-un can appear irrational, and certainly takes the threatening approach. Arguably Trump has responded by being pretty irrational too (or appearing to be) whilst also being quite prepared to use threats himself. But maybe this is a more effective tactic than the Obama administration’s approach – looking to cool logic and conciliation. Certainly, the co-operation over the Olympics is the most positive happening for years on the Korean peninsula.

It was also interesting to read an article on the Harvard Business School website from Harvard professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman, authors of Negotiation Genius.

“Negotiators often struggle with the task of trying to negotiate with those who behave recklessly, strategize poorly, and act in ways that seem to contradict their own self-interests, and any would-be negotiation genius needs to understand how to deal with these obstacles”, they say.

But they point out that often we just think our opponents behaviour is unreasonable – look at matters from their perspective, really think about their motivation and position, and everything could seem quite different.

Our advice is this: be very careful before labeling someone "irrational." Whenever our students or clients tell us about their "irrational" or "crazy" counterparts, we work with them to carefully consider whether the other side is truly irrational. Almost always, the answer is no. In most cases, behavior that appears to be irrational has a rational—albeit hidden—cause”.

That’s something to bear in mind – and certainly Kim Jong-un’s stance is seen as quite logical by some analysts. But do read Malhotra and Bazerman’s whole article here if you want to understand their thoughts on the three most common reasons for apparently irrational behaviours in negotiations.  And in the meantime, perhaps we can all hope for gold  medals for combined  Korean teams as a pre-cursor for better and safer relationships in that part of the world!

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