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Negotiating – Eyeball to Eyeball

by Tom O'Connor on July 5th, 2011
James Dean as Jim Stark in the chicken game scene from Rebel Without a Cause

James Dean as Jim Stark in the 'chicken' scene from Rebel Without a Cause

Brinkmanship has been a lot in the news this year – on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US, warring factions on Capitol Hill brought government to the brink of closure back in April.

While in Europe, much of the recent rhetoric has been about threatening Greece with Euro expulsion and economic implosion, unless further austerity measures get enacted in Athens.

It isn’t the most edifying of negotiation tactics, but is seen to be regularly applied in many arenas – most particularly, in union-management disputes and in matters of international diplomacy.

Brinkmanship origins
The term dates from 1956 and Illinois Governor, Adlai Stevenson’s description of the stance being taken by the then Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, in the face of  the Soviet Union’s nuclear  build-up:

“we hear the Secretary of State boasting of his brinkmanship
  – the art of bringing us to the edge of nuclear abyss”.

This was in response to Dulles’s earlier statement, where he had set out his recipe for peace, thus:

“The ability to get to the verge without getting into war
is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably
get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are
scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”

Brinkmanship and ‘the game of chicken’
The parallels in thinking here with ‘the game of chicken’ depicted in the previous year’s James Dean movie, Rebel Without a Cause, is historically striking.

There, Dean’s character, Jim Stark, engages in competition with his arch-rival, Buzz, simultaneously driving their cars off the edge of a cliff to see who would be last to jump out – leaving the other to be taunted as chicken.

The brinkmanship card was again famously played during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – when war was averted only at the last minute, with Khrushchev ordering the Soviet ships to turn back.

And, in that moment, Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, uttered what has become one of the most vivid metaphors in the whole lexicon of brinkmanship:

“We’ve been eyeball to eyeball and the other fellow just blinked”.

Brinkmanship as an effective negotiation tactic
What constitutes blinking in this context is, of course, fundamental to the success or otherwise of the brinkmanship ploy.

For neither side ever wishes to have to go through with its threat .

The trade union threatening strike action or the country throwing shapes for war is mostly flexing its muscle –  but is fully aware that if it goes all the way, both sides will lose.

So, brinkmanship as an effective negotiation ploy entails a far more sophisticated array of attributes beyond the overt show of strength and the crude issuing of ultimatums.

For one, the ultimatum should not be a single–shot affair, but should be constructed to be progressively divisable.

Otherwise, the winner may extract only a mimimal level of compliance.

Negotiation and performance management
Take for example, a manager who is unhappy with an employee’s performance.

If the only tool he has in his armoury is the threat of dismissal he holds over the employee, then the employee is most likely to respond with a level of performance just sufficient to ensure he doesn’t get dismissed, but nothing more.

In this case, though the employee blinks under the threat of dismissal, the employer doesn’t really win.

Ironically, it turns out that all the bargaining power resides with the employee, who can calibrate his response to deliver the minimum performance improvement that keeps him employed.

The employer is much better served by extracting progressive improvements that fall short of the dismissal ultimatum.

A pattern of performance management tactics, such as withholding some discretionary privileges, plum assignments, bonus increments, etc., proves far more effective in negotiating higher performance.

Brinkmanship – understanding the other side
A second important component for effective brinkmanship is the level of knowledge one has of the other side – in terms of their rational and emotional make-up.

The side that is perceived to be wholly unreasonable, irrational and/or emotionally unpredictable holds a big advantage.

Thus, a trade union is far less likely to issue a strike ultimatum to an employer whom it might fear was more likely to respond by closing down operations than engaging with their demands.

In fact, for brinkmanship to work, both sides have to achieve a cooperative level of restraint.

Often this is facilitated through parallel back channels, where others on the respective protagonists’ teams engage in parallel negotiations to find a way to defuse the head-to-head stand-off.

In fact, we now know from Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days memoir that the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was more the result of these side negotiations than anything to do with Khrushchev blinking.

Columbo takes producer to the brink
Hollywood actor, Peter Falk, of Columbo fame, who sadly passed away just last week, recounts a story  in his autobiography, Just One More Thing, how he once used brinkmanship on Italian producer, Dino De Laurentiis.

Falk had travelled to Rome to begin shooting the movie  Anzio – only to find that he was unhappy with the script.

He began his negotiations by announcing to Dino that he was going home and had already booked a flight leaving within hours.

Dino volunteered to drive him to the airport.

In the car the conversation goes somewhat like this:

Dino:           “Peter, no problema – all good, no problema.
                       I’ll combine actor’s A’s part with actor C’s part,
                       leaving Actor C, who is terrific to play your part.”

Falk:             “I’m relieved to hear that – no problema”

Dino:           “When you are back in Hollywood, I don’t want you 
                      saying bad things about the script”

Falk:            “I would never do that. I’ll say that it was a terrific script.”

Dino:          “Good. What reason will you say for leaving the movie?”

Falk:           “I’ll tell people I got sick … & had to get home to my doctor.”

Arbitrary demands and emotional restraint pays off
On seeing the airport sign, Dino suddenly slams on the brakes and turns around to Falk to continue the conversation:

Dino:         “What do you want?”

Falk:          “What I want is simple. I want a better part.
                    That’s it. Nothing else.”

Dino:        “You know a writer?”

Falk:         “I don’t need a writer. I’ll  write it myself.”

Dino:       “Okay, it’s a deal. Let’s cancel that reservation!”

This little episode demonstrates another key attribute for effective brinkmanship: the more arbitrary your position the stronger you are – provided you do not arouse a negative emotional reaction in the other side.

Distinguishing brinkmanship from blackmail
Falk’s position is certainly not simply addressed – after all, he is not looking for more money or top billing or anything Dino can tangibly offer or rationally dispute.

In other circumstances, Dino might have thought: “ah to hell with this, just another temperamental movie star, I can do without”.

But, Falk’s  courtesy to Dino in reassuring him that he would keep mum on the script, ensures Dino is no way provoked into being so inclined. 

This distinguishes brinkmanship from blackmail.

PS. For details of a related Torc training programme, please leave a message in comment box below. Title: Learning From The Movies© – Negotiation Skills

PPS. For related negotiation blogs, please click on the following Torc links:
1. Cool Hand, Hustle & Sting
2. Women make better negotiators
3. The art of the haggle
4. Humphrey Bogart’s dual duel
5. Negotiating: when the stakes are high
6. Streetwise tactical negotiation
7. Stand-offs … & face savings

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