Do experts on negotiation practice what they preach? To find out, we spoke with Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School professor Guhan Subramanian. The former academic editor of Negotiation Briefings, Subramanian was named the chair of the Program on Negotiation (PON) atHarvard Law School in 2018. He leads PON’s executive committee, a group of 11 negotiation faculty,in setting the program’s initiatives and direction. We asked him to describe the committee’s negotiations and whether they conform to negotiation best practices.
Negotiation Briefings: Before you became chair of PON, you were a member of the executive committee, which regularly engages in internal negotiations. Now you’re the leader of that committee. As you’ve changed roles, how have the committee’s negotiations changed for you?
Guhan Subramanian: The PON chair has always been first among equals. And, not surprisingly, given the nature of PON, we’ve tried to negotiate among ourselves as opposed to following any kind of mandate from the boss. Continuing a culture established by Robert Mnookin, PON’s longtime chair, I try to lead the group in reaching consensus rather than resorting to a majority-vote rule.
The nature of PON makes it a place where trying to reach decisions through negotiation is a natural thing to do. And the reality is that all the executive committee members are senior faculty members, so there are no real carrots or sticks I could offer in the way that a typical manager would. All I can do is appeal to the substantive arguments as to why one course of action would be better than another. We all realize that and try to work together to reach good outcomes for PON and for the field of negotiation overall.
NB: Do you ever experience a conflict between what you believe would be in the best interest of the group versus what would be in your best interest personally?
GS: Not really. It’s the responsibility of the executive committee to make sure that we always put PON first, and there are rarely such conflicts of interest. In the few scenarios where there are, we try to use processes that accommodate for those conflicts, such as asking someone to step out if we’re discussing a program they are responsible for within PON.
NB: Professors are smart people who often have strong opinions. When disagreements become unproductive, what strategies do you use to address conflict?
GS: As the new chair, I’ve naturally wanted to make some changes to how things have been done. Obviously, some of them will lead to debate. I try to make sure that everyone feels listened to and that the final decision is one that accommodates all points of view.
I often think of a quote from former president Barack Obama, which I’ll paraphrase: I want to hear their point of view, and then I provide my point of view, and then I want to try to find the truth that lies between people. In my experience being on faculty, being involved in negotiations, and now heading PON, I’ve learned that no single person has the truth; the truth lies between people. Therefore, to try to insist on your point of view or approach probably won’t lead to a good outcome in the end. So, I try to listen to dissenters and address their concerns.
NB: The executive committee is made up of negotiation experts. Do you rely on the same strategies that you teach to others?
GS: We do. I credit Bob Mnookin for instilling a culture in which every member has a voice. For example, as the leader, I try to make sure that everyone has a chance to weigh in on a particular topic, and I ask those who are experts in the area we’re discussing to contribute. Consistent with negotiation best practices, I also try to hear from potential dissenters. I myself sometimes play devil’s advocate if I feel like the counterarguments haven’t been fully conveyed among the group members. I’ll say, “What if this downside scenario happens?” and try to hear all the arguments against a decision.
One of the main insights to come out of PON over the past 30 to 40 years is that managers are negotiators. In the old days, organizations used to be more hierarchical, and leaders could just tell people what to do. In today’s era of flatter, matrixed organizations, you have to negotiate with your colleagues. Everyone has the same interest of advancing the organization’s collective goals, but we all have different views on how to get there. It’s fun to apply the tools we teach in class to running PON. We have the great gift of a wonderful staff, which makes the job a lot easier.