By Sujit Mundul
“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” - J F Kennedy (Kennedy) 20.1.61
Stewart’s (1976) claim that a large proportion of managerial work is conversational has considerable support, but what is less clear is what kind of conversations managers have. Strauss (1978), suggests that social order at any level (from family life to international relations) is unthinkable without negotiations. Indeed, his thesis is that order itself is better conceptualized as “negotiated order” in the sense that some form of negotiation is always critical to organization. This does not mean for Strauss that everything is or has been negotiable. As Strauss concludes; “I am not claiming, however, that certain things are always negotiable. I only say that the limits require exploration.”
I believe that the entire edifice of the limits is constructed through various powerful actors’ accounts. In order words, this part of the negotiating strategy may well be to proclaim that some things are non-negotiable. We might, for example, consider that the starting salary of newly graduated MBA students is negotiable, but that the MBA itself is not negotiated. Yet, MBA courses are remarkably divergent so that they must be negotiable. However, the time taken to undertake an MBA course is not negotiable!
Let us take the most non-negotiable event that will happen to us: death, of course. I cannot be serious if I am going to claim that death is negotiable. However, even the greatest non-negotiable event now appears to be negotiable; the point at which death is said to occur is increasingly fuzzy. It is because technological innovations generate further possibility for dissolving the boundary between life and death. This does not mean that we can cheat death by dint of a powerful thought process, but it does mean that the declaration of death is the result of a negotiated process. The primary aim of negotiation is to ensure that as many aspects as possible, which they consider to be advantageous to them, are taken by the other side as nonnegotiable. One implication of the assumption that everything is negotiable – but don’t let your opposition know it – is that negotiation is critically rooted in power. Traditional notions of power – that it is a possession and that it flows down the hierarchy – are that conversations between individuals are merely the utterance of orders:
“Tony, get this order out today please!” “Yes, Claire, right away.” You will find here the point that Claire’s position implies that she herself has to do nothing – she merely tells Tony what to do; thus her power is deployed through the language, it is not physically enacted. However, I would like to remind in this context that Foucauedian notion of power suggests that power is a relationship and not a possession. Here’s the second scene of this drama:
“Tony, get this order out today please!” “Sorry Claire, I’ve got other priorities; yours will have to wait!” In this scenario, Claire’s power remains linguistically configured but its execution is entirely dependent on Tony acceding to her demand. Should Tony refuse, as he does here, Claire’s power fades away in the deteriorating relationship. The suggestion here is that power should be considered as a relationship because its execution is dependent on subordinate action and not super ordinate demand. If this is the case, then power relationships are essentially relationships of negotiation. If this was not the case, we would find it easy to control our own children. Somehow, adults appear to lose their negotiating skills as they mature, to the point that many find any form of bargaining or haggling over prices very difficult and embarrassing too. This, however, suggests that we need not envisage negotiating as simply the traditional matter of collective bargaining between managers and unions, though this clearly forms part of the assumption.
More radically, it implies that virtually all focus of management are forms of negotiating. Nevertheless, it may not appear like this to subordinates (or even super ordinates). After all, when the boss says” jump”, you either jump or you are out, aren’t you? Well no, you are not. You can always say “no” – and suffer the consequences which are unlikely to be an instant dismissal for such an offence – but surely this is not negotiating, it is a refusal to negotiate. It seems more likely that most super ordinates engage in a form of conversation that doesn’t (normally) involve the words “must” or the coercive equivalent. It is far more likely that words like “please” and “would you mind” will be used. It may be that subordinates simply just comply – but this is usually a choice made about the consequences of not complying and part of a longer form of strategic negotiation i.e. in the expectation of a future gain. However, there are exceptions too, who attach least importance to the gain or loss. It would be good to take a look at some of the most extreme organizations, such as Nazi concentration camps, where it was seldom the case that simple obedience ensured personal survival. In Levi’s (1993) harrowing account of Auschwitz, he concluded; “To carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the nation, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp, only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way.” As someone senior once suggested to me in a bit of Machiavellianism, the route to the top is not to make the right friends but to make the right enemies. Whether this is good or a bad advice, it does embody a significant element of managerial success; other people.
Without networking, little is achieved, and as chaos theory reminds us, the world can be so unpredictable that the more friends in high places we can accumulate the more likely we are to survive the organizational storms that will inevitably sweep over us throughout our lives. However, the implications of actor–network theory also remind us that people are seldom enough. We may have the right personal alliances up and running but if the company is not being well managed or for any other reason, we may find ourselves acquired by a rival for whom our network might render irrelevant. I would like to add, unless we can accumulate the non-human elements to our network – and hold them in position – we may still fail. If my computer or car or phone fails at an inappropriate time, then the deal may be lost. Even if we manage to get all these elements to work, the bottom line that will ensure my own survival is not simply a red or black number ‘or’ a loss or profit. It is because the accountants have, despite Aristotle’s best intentions, ways of marking good or bad numbers appear rather better or considerably worse. In short, management is a very fuzzy business.
I would like to conclude by saying that negotiating is the Sine qua non of fuzzy management because it is the primary practical of dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity in all its forms.
Mundul is a Director with Standard Chartered Bank Nepal Ltd.