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Trust Me. I Am a Negotiator.

David Bannister

Some years ago, I was teaching a management course in the Far East.  My words were to be consecutively interpreted to the class so I had to send all my material for translation in advance.  One of the exercises I used was a version of the 'Prisoner's Dilemma', a game where the participants' integrity is challenged and where they can be tempted to try to gain advantage over other participants by saying one thing and then doing something else to 'win' the game.  The teaching point is that, once someone acts without integrity, trust is prejudiced and for the rest of the game no-one else will trust them, whatever their assurances might be.  One of my interpreters said to me that she thought this game couldn't work because it was 'not logical'.  A day later, as she watched the fury of the participants at the first person who had 'cheated': one venerable lady was standing on her chair and pointing accusingly at the perpetrator saying I know not what, but doing so with great Vietnamese venom, my interpreter said, 'It does work'.

'Yes', I said, 'that's because we humans are not necessarily always logical, especially when we trust someone and their actions make us think it has been misplaced.

I was reminded of this a week or so ago when a friend telephoned me to ask some advice.  He had resigned his job to join a competitor of his company for a substantial increase in salary and the potential of much greater career prospects.  He told me that his boss had greeted the news frostily and had made frequent references to ensure that he should "tidy those projects up before you go".  He had served all but two weeks of his three-month notice period when, to his surprise, his boss had called him and told him that his present employer would match the competitor's salary offer and put my friend forward for promotion at the next review date.  This perplexed my friend who had been told at his last performance review that he could not expect promotion in the short term - there was no space at the next grade up.  In calling me, he simply wanted a friendly and independent person with whom to discuss his options.  I told him that I considered him to be in a powerful position: his present and his prospective employer both wanted his services and we knew that he had unique experience and abilities valued by both of them.  He could, in a sense, take a risk and go to the competitor or play safe and stay with the employer he had known for some years; his income and prospects appeared to be guaranteed whichever choice he made.  He spent some time talking to me about the options available to him and concluded by saying that he felt inclined to take the competitor's job offer.  When we explored this, his reason was that his present employer had not behaved consistently and that this inconsistency, despite the substantial counter offer which had been made to him, caused him to suspect the motives and not trust his present employer to deliver on the offer in full.  He will leave.  His experience and considerable expertise will be lost to someone who could have retained them if only he had retained my friend's trust by some simple, consistent actions.

I was left thinking that there may be a lesson in all of this for negotiators: when you are in a long-term relationship with the party with whom you negotiate, it may not simply be the quantum of the offer that you make which will allow you to win the deal because this may be influenced by your behaviour during the relationship as a whole.  As I always used to say at the end of the 'Prisoner's Dilemma' exercise, "the lesson here is that trust is really hard to establish, very easy to lose and significantly more difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to re-establish once lost".

Those of us who are in long-term business relationships would do well to remember the fact that the overall integrity which we exhibit during the relationship may be an important factor in determining how favourably others will treat our offers when we come to negotiate.  People seem prepared to take a risk to get away from relationships they don't trust and to give themselves the opportunity to establish a new one which they do trust.

David Bannister
Scotwork UK LLP

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