In team negotiations, should you divide and conquer?

Renewed negotiations between North and South Korea are raising concerns for the United States— and drawing attention to an age-old bargaining strategy.

By on / International Negotiation

In a New Year’s Day address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proposed opening talks with South Korea to discuss the North’s possible participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Hoping to avoid disruption by the North, South Korean president Moon Jae-in had been calling on North Korea to send athletes to the games. In his speech, Kim also touted the success of his country’s nuclear weapons program and threatened, “All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”

Just a week later, negotiators from the North and South met on their border, where the North agreed to the South’s request to send a large delegation to the Olympics. It was the first official dialogue between the two nations in two years.

Korea experts viewed the North’s overture as a “divide and conquer” strategy aimed at driving a wedge between South Korea and the United States, which recently persuaded its allies to impose tough new sanctions on North Korea. Both the South Korean and U.S. governments insist they continue to coordinate closely with each other to minimize the security threat posed by North Korea. In fact, Moon publicly credited Trump for instigating the negotiations between the two Koreas by pressuring the North with sanctions.

In negotiation, the “divide and conquer” strategy is rooted in the observation that when members of a bargaining team spend resources fighting one another, they will have fewer resources to use against their opposition, writes Griffith University senior lecturer Larry Crump in a 2005 Negotiation Journal article.

Related to the biblical saying “a house divided against itself shall not stand,” the divide-and-conquer strategy is most relevant to competitions, contests, and distributive negotiations where each side is trying to “win.” But parties in more collaborative team negotiations may also benefit at times from pitting factions within a counterpart’s team against each other. North Korea’s gambit raises two broader questions: (1) How can a divideand-conquer strategy be used successfully in negotiation? and (2) How can your team avoid becoming its next victim?

Playing offense

Divide and conquer can be an effective strategy when you see value in negotiating with one faction on a counterpart’s team to the exclusion of others, exploiting differences between allied parties, or sowing discord among counterparts. Here are a few hypothetical examples:

  • You’re negotiating with the sales, marketing, and IT departments of a large organization for a potential purchase. Believing you have a strong rapport with the lead IT negotiator, you try to negotiate with that person one-on-one in the hope of securing a favorable commitment.
  • A teenager detects that his parents have different views about his curfew despite their attempts to present a united front. When alone with his father, the teen talks about how eager he is to attend a late-night cast party and asks his dad to put in a good word with his mom.
  • After receiving mixed messages from two different members of a negotiating team, you angrily tell the one whose proposal you prefer that her counterpart is difficult to work with.

The key to implementing a divide-andconquer strategy is to recognize that the interests and preferences of members of a negotiating team are often misaligned. One partner may have greater financial incentives to close a deal with you. One may have a stronger interest in building a long-term relationship with you. And one partner may have less motivation to get along well with her partner than the other person does. When you are having difficulty getting what you want out of a negotiation, try to identify such differences and think about whether you can use them to your advantage, whether by shutting out one counterpart, encouraging a counterpart to influence her partner, or trying to drive a wedge between factions.

Playing defense

How can you keep a counterpart from dividing and conquering your own negotiating team? Good defense depends on your ability to keep your team unified and harmonious. Here are three tips:

1. Prepare thoroughly.

    1. The more time your team spends preparing to negotiate, the harder it will be for the other side to divide you. Before official negotiations begin, devote ample time to discussing the substance of the negotiation, assigning skills and roles, and planning the negotiation process with your team. Choose an overarching goal that will drive your negotiating strategy, such as reaching a deal that will contribute to your organization’s long-term health, and decide on fairness standards and decision-making rules for your group.

2. Anticipate conflict. Don’t assume your group will be able to rise above any internal conflict that emerges during your negotiation. Rather than dealing with conflict on the fly, discuss in advance how you will head it off and cope with it. Set regular times when the group can meet privately during the upcoming negotiation to discuss progress and potential “wedge” issues. Commit to discussing any differences that arise openly and respectfully.

3. Manage alliances. Internal coalitions can sink any negotiating team. For this reason, it’s important to be on the lookout for alliances that may develop and create disunity once negotiations get started. Crump recommends assigning a “link person” responsible for building and strengthening ties across team members. You can also reduce the odds that dysfunctional factions will form by meeting as a group whenever possible rather than caucusing separately.

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