Alain Lempereur, the Alan B. Slifka Professor and Director of the Heller School conflict Resolution Program at Brandeis University, is an affiliated faculty and executive committee member of the Program on Negotiation (PoN) at Harvard Law School (HLS). The author of a dozen books, Lempereur has developed the concept of “responsible negotiation” and below he answers questions about how to conduct more ethically sound negotiations.
How do you define responsible negotiation?
Alain Lempereur: It is the capacity to advance your personal goals in the here and now, while also serving the goals of other relevant parties or stakeholders, including future generations.
Consider that some negotiations that benefit the parties at the table might not benefit the society as a whole. To take an extreme example, think of the film The Godfather, in which the head boss, via the consigliere, makes offers that others “can’t refuse.” The characters even seem to apply the tools we recommend at PON: building relationships, creating and claiming value, developing strong BATNAs (best alternatives to a negotiated agreement), managing difficult conversations, and so on. However, when conducted without concern for the effects on outsiders, even well-crafted negotiations can inflict terrible collateral damage, including ruined lives. To avoid harming others, negotiators need to look beyond their personal profit goals.
So a responsible negotiator is someone who acts legally and ethically?
AL: Yes, but negotiators sometimes act against the best interests of society while still respecting legal and ethical norms.
In many of the negotiations that contributed to the 2008 economic crisis, for example, borrowers negotiated risky loans from banks, which were complacent about their odds of being paid back. When they weren’t paid back, the banks bundled these “toxic assets” and sold them to hedge funds. Some of the financial deals of the era benefited the parties who were directly involved and even maximized utility at a microeconomic level at the time. However, in the aggregate, these deals created huge systemic long-term risks. When the real estate bubble burst, the crisis struck the entire economy, families lost their homes, workers lost their jobs, and it was up to taxpayers to rescue the banks. Many of these victims never had a seat at the table.
Negotiation theory needs to factor in the current perspectives of those at the table while also integrating other stakeholders. To achieve sustainable deals, negotiators must anticipate everyone who would have to bear any negative consequences of a deal, including their coworkers, children, and communities.
In what ways are individual negotiators and organizations commonly irresponsible?
AL: A responsible individual might know the importance of preparing to negotiate. But if their organization hasn’t aligned processes to reward negotiators for preparing, the organization is behaving irresponsibly and will bear the consequences, whoever works for it. If preparation isn’t a priority and a key performance indicator, individuals may fail to prepare, seeing that no one else is doing so, and they, too, become irresponsible in the process.
What is one real-world problem you’ve worked on where you’ve seen significant gains?
AL: For many years, I have supported belligerent parties in conflict situations. I have used two tools in particular. One is role reversal, where each party metaphorically tries on the other party’s shoes. In the aftermath of the Burundian civil war, for example, I asked former Hutu rebels to play the role of Tutsi army commanders and vice versa. The other tool, when parties started to play the blame game, was to ask them to “have a dream,” drawing from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You are the elites of society,” I would say to Burundian leaders charged with rebuilding their society. “What do you think the people want from you now and for themselves in 20 years?” These tools changed the protagonists’ mindsets and helped them overcome roadblocks.
Is there a negotiation that has raised red flags for you, from a responsibility standpoint? What would you advise those involved to do differently?
AL: The Paris Climate Accord is one notable example of a responsible negotiation, as it served the interests of current generations, while also improving the odds that our earth will be habitable for our species and other forms of life into the future. The Trump Administration’s decision to break the accord unilaterally put much at risk. I urge decision makers to ask themselves, whenever they negotiate, to consider their own children and the type of planet they want to leave behind.
Do you have other questions to ask? What is an example of a responsible negotiation you’ve participated in, or have seen in the news?