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The Power of Understanding

Increasing Negotiation and Leadership Performance through the Power of Understanding


Laws of Power 15: Invest in Self-Interest

By Karen S. Walch, Ph.D.

Many years ago as a graduate student, I learned about the role of self-interest in the pursuit of power. In my studies about classic power, research consistently concluded that we are all surrounded by people who have absolutely no reason to cooperate with us unless it is in their self-interest to do so — unless you are an altruist, which we will discuss later in the series. In short, if you as a negotiator have little to offer a counterpart, you will simply be seen as a competitor to defend against or an annoyance to be disposed of in a world of limited resources and time.

Indeed, Machiavellian negotiators have long asserted that “powerful negotiators are those who can unlock the stranger’s heart and mind, seducing him into their corner, and if necessary, softening them up for the punch.” A key to classic hardball negotiation persuasion skills, for example, is to “work on a counterpart’s emotions and play on their intellectual weaknesses.”

We all know that every negotiation requires us to prepare to “claim value” in any agreement so we can get the best possible deal for ourselves. “Claiming value,” or the primary assertion of our own self-interests relative to others, is classic in negotiation power games. In order to assert our own interests, negotiators must prepare, for example, to structure first offers, how to respond to offers, determine how far to push the other side, and how to maximize value and outcomes for ourselves. We need to prepare strategically to negotiate for what we deserve.

Today, dynamic and destructive forces continue to compel us in almost primal ways to be constantly vigilant about how to claim value and protect our own self-interests. The complexity and sophistication of multiple party negotiations, economic uncertainty, and threats of litigation, war, corruption, fearful emotions, and irrationality confront us every day both personally and professionally. Many negotiators I have interviewed and observed often question what “win-win” could possibly mean today in the face of situations that are mere battles for survival and self-preservation.

Ironically, just as these forces defeat some people, I have witnessed many who have become increasingly aware of how important, more than ever, it is to learn the skills to “create value,” as opposed merely to claiming value, and cooperate with their counterparts in negotiation. Their own self-interest is protected and advanced when they make a choice to use their “brains to change their brains” about fear and egoistic self-interest.

Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman emphasize in their research that “genius” in negotiation requires knowledge, understanding and mindful practice to systematically think about creating value in negotiation. Such habits, expectations and strategies will cultivate more creativity and skills which overcome panic, misplaced superiority, or naïve optimism. An investment in understanding interdependent self-interests in complex negotiation situations is the most practical and effective mechanism there is for allocating resources, balancing competing interests, and resolving complex conflicts. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Man hopes; genius creates.”

Recently, I had an opportunity to work with someone who might qualify as one of Malhotra and Bazerman’s genius negotiators who wants to create value in one of the most primal situations which makes cooperation difficult. This individual is a senior official in one of Iraq’s most important government ministries who faces a devastating environment of post war Iraq. He wants to help lead his ministry and team to continue the rebuilding of Iraq through excruciatingly small steps. Violence in Baghdad is down but still rampant, and unemployment ranges into the 50 percent range. Residents have not had electricity run for a 24-hour period in six years. The private sector, under the 25-year dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, was almost crushed by embargoes.

Although the effects of three decades of war and conflict affect every aspect of his ministry’s life, he is committed to partnerships with the international community to negotiate new value in a highly technical global economy. As I observed this official and his hope for Iraqi officials to create value, I was inspired by his ability to think like a “negotiation genius.” He saw that the preservation of his own self-interest and a single focus on claiming value at all costs may help his country survive, but he aspires to be more creative and capable of achieving stability and security with those who also have an interest in the fate of Iraq. With his avowed interest in professionalism, anti-corruption and the development of young officers in his ministry, he asserts a motivation to lead by example as someone who has the courage to “create value.”

Law 15 Exercise: Reflections on self-interest

1. Think about a negotiation you have previously been involved in and recall how you thought about how to protect your own self-interests.

2. From those past experiences, can you identify and recognize how you defined your self-interest relative to your counterpart.

3. Can you name or list your claiming or creating value behaviors and how you balanced your self-interests with those of your counterpart?

Extra Credit

For further reading on negotiation: Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond, Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman (Bantam Books, 2007).

48 Laws for 21st Century Global Negotiators: Join Thunderbird Professor Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., as she explores the laws of power for 21st century global negotiators. Each Monday she discusses one law and provides an exercise to identify and enhance individual negotiation power. Go to the main menu for the series.

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