Brexit and how bad bosses wreck negotiations
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
In the concluding part of a guest blog series for PolicyDepartment, negotiation expert and MD of BrassTacks Negotiation Training Gareth Roberts reveals how bad bosses can wreck negotiations and the advice he would give Brexit negotiators on both sides of the talks.
To recap, check out Part 1 and Part 2 in the series.
I did some consulting work for a biotech firm recently and was interested to hear their Procurement Director say of a supplier “they see us a cash cow and are really aggressive in price negotiations”.
The interesting word in that quote is they.
A common mistake when planning a negotiation is to anthropomorphise groups of people. That is, to apply the characteristics of an individual person to whole teams, companies or even countries.
In fact, they had no unified opinion of my biotech client. They were a heterogeneous collection of individuals working across the supplier organisation, each with different values, beliefs and levels of influence with respect to my client as a customer.
We see similar anthropomorphising in how politicians and the media describe Brexit negotiations, saying things like “the EU consider state aid to be a red line” or “the UK are becoming frustrated by intransigence on fisheries”.
Good negotiators see beyond this linguistic shorthand and will carefully map out the full cast of stakeholders on the other side, ensuring that they are negotiating only with the decision maker or a negotiator with a clear mandate from a decision maker.
In commercial negotiations, I never hesitated to go over the head of my opposite number if I was not making progress, especially if I sensed a lack of alignment on the opposing side. If the other negotiator had done their homework, their boss would be prepped for my call and would politely refer me back to my original counterpart.
If not, I found that great gains could often be yielded by negotiating directly with the decision maker.
There are several reasons for this:
The decision maker may have a team of skilled negotiators working for them, but may not be skilled in this area personally;
Decision makers may not be close to the detail of their team’s negotiating plan; this is often a recipe for cheaply-won concessions or responding to persuasion in a way that their negotiating team will not;
When senior stakeholders enter a negotiation, the ego-driven desire to appear useful/strong/engaged often kicks in; in practice this can equate to careless language that unpicks the hard-won progress that their team has made.
In short, failing to secure tight alignment between a negotiating team and their leadership is a recipe for either a bad deal or no deal at all.
In this sense, the EU has needed to show remarkable discipline in coordinating the leaders of 27 member states – plus the EU Parliament that will need to ratify any trade deal – to support a common negotiating position and, crucially, not to “take the call” from UK negotiators seeking to work around Michel Barnier and his team.
In theory then, the UK side has an advantage in effectively just having one ultimate decision maker in Boris Johnson, unencumbered by the parliamentary arithmetic that stymied Theresa May’s ability to deliver a credible mandate for her negotiating team.
In practice though, the complexity of the EU executive probably makes it much harder for UK negotiators to effectively engage wider stakeholders to any meaningful extent.
There is a clear contrast here with the significant power currently held by Boris Johnson to orchestrate – and amend – the UK approach at short notice.
It is with Johnson then, that the destiny of the UK trading relationship with the EU mostly resides. It is the decisions he makes in the coming weeks, the mandate he gives his negotiators and how skilfully he manages his direct interventions with EU stakeholders, that will determine how this most complex of negotiations will conclude.
So, my advice to UK Brexit Negotiators:
Keep building your Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreementt (BATNA) with putative non-EU trade agreements and preparations for trading with the EU on WTO terms. The public narrative around these activities really does matter – control it!
Alignment and planning are key: everyone from Boris Johnson down needs to know what they will do and when between now and the end of the transition period. Ambiguity is not your friend at this point.
And my advice to EU Brexit Negotiators:
Frustrating the UK from building their BATNA with non-EU players is advisable and probably expected, though subtlety is the order of the day if you ultimately want to do a Brexit trade deal;
Do not expect the UK negotiating team to ultimately behave in what you might perceive to be the rational, economic interests of the British people as the transition period deadline approaches;
Boris Johnson has staked huge political capital on a “good deal or WTO” outcome and it is ultimately his judgement on whether the deal on the table by November is a good one – or at least could be perceived that way – that will dictate the outcome of negotiations. Given this concentration of power, engage him directly wherever possible between now and the end of the transition period.
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